Feels like home? Is it Telstra or Qantas shaping your holiday season?

We finally finished Christmas celebrations yesterday; rounding out a week with an extended Campbell family get together (almost) all of us in the flesh. That’s what Christmas — this holiday season — is about… isn’t it? Connection. Family. Togetherness. My Facebook feed has certainly been full of family photos of similar gatherings.

Today our little family unit hit the cinemas to catch Paddington 2 with the kids. The movie is what it is; if your kids liked Paddington 1 they’ll like the sequel (though this one isn’t quite as scary). The Christmas holidays are prime cinema advertising season, so the big guns were out — especially two big guns of Aussie ‘connectivity’ — Qantas, our Aussie airline, and Telstra, our Aussie telecom. Qantas, whose aspirational tagline is ‘the Spirit of Australia’ and Telstra, whose ‘vision’ is “to create a brilliant connected future for everyone.”

Two cinematic ads — stories — speaking to our desires, especially our holiday desires for connection with loved ones.

Both feature family separated by distance, both seek to bridge the gap because life is about connection.

The Qantas ad featuring the song Feels Like Home offers a critique to Telstra’s magic solution to distance (I’ve written about Telstra’s ad before). It features an adult daughter (and kids) connecting to her geographically distant mum via a screen; her disembodied head on the kitchen table as candles are blown out and her present opened — a picture of distance or ‘excarnation’ — the relationship is missing something because she isn’t there in the flesh. And then. She opens the present and its tickets for the family to bridge the gap, to be present with each other. Happy holidays. They smile. They hug. They are tearfully united. Cut to the shot of the flying jet and the line ‘Our Spirit flies further’ while the song finishes with the words ‘back where I belong’ — it’s almost poetic; here is Qantas’ vision of connection and the flourishing human life. The desires of our hearts met. Our emotions satisfied. And it’s all about connection through presence.

Telstra wants us to believe that connection can be mediated by a device running some software to link us as pixels; space is no longer an obstacle if we can “be in two places at once” — the promise of technology; the promise of Telstra and the means it is relying on to deliver its vision for a flourishing ‘connected’ future society. Qantas suggests there might be something less satisfying about this vision — that real connectivity isn’t via FaceTime but is face-to-face. Embodied. Fleshy.

Telstra wants us to believe we can have presence without sacrifice — presence without having to leave where we are to achieve it. That through technology we can be two places at once. Their business model, their vision, is to essentially put Qantas out of business and replace them with black glass, cameras, and touch screens. Swipe right for connection; just without leaving your home. Bridge the gap from your pocket. Virtually.

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment — one building the framework for an ethic of attention in an age of distraction — it’s called The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I’m loving it because of my own dabbling with Iris Murdoch’s ethical ideas around ‘loving attention’ back when I was thinking about the Internet outrage machine. The problem with Telstra’s solution for connection is that what they’re offering is technology that actually feeds distraction and disconnection (there’s some stuff on social media and media ecology and how technology changes us back in my archives too). Author Matthew Crawford paints a picture of life in our distracted age, where even public space has been given over to private interests and electronic screens bombarding us with messages, he asks what the escape is, and what happens to our ability to be present or pay attention if life is mediated to us by screens. He describes the dilemma of the modern worker who spends all day reacting to electronic stimulus — to notifications and hundreds of emails — who then heads home… or goes on holidays… and this sounds eerily familiar (it sounds like my life).

“Yet this same person may find himself checking his email frequently once he gets home or while on vacation. It becomes effortful for him to be fully present while giving his children a bath or taking a meal with his spouse. Our changing technological environment generates a need for ever more stimulation. The content of the stimulation almost becomes irrelevant. Our distractibility seems to indicate that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to—that is, what to value.”

Telstra isn’t going to save us; their business model — their vision for the future (their own economic future) depends on reinforcing this behaviour, and convincing us that connectivity — that bridging the gap between us and other people just takes a screen.

Crawford suggests the Qantas ad might also be wishful thinking if we can’t disconnect ourselves from the screen long enough to pay attention, and picks the airport departure area as a prime example of our modern dilemma — even our attempts to connect are likely to be thwarted by the ‘magic’ of virtual connectivity and distraction. He talks about the way so much physical real estate at the airport is taken up by advertising, and attention grabbing  ‘content’ right up till when you sit down in the departure lounge in front of TV screens playing the news with no sound on (unless you pay to ‘escape the commons’ — the public space — to retire to the silence of the airport lounge. He paints a picture of our excarnation — our desire to move our attention away from where the ‘flesh’ is, in order to be somewhere else. Via our attention — and away from those we are embodied with.

“Of course, in my airport example, one can simply shift in one’s seat and avert one’s gaze from the screens. But the fields of view that haven’t been claimed for commerce seem to be getting fewer and narrower. The ever more complete penetration of public spaces by attention-getting technologies exploits the orienting response in a way that preempts sociability, directing us away from one another and toward a manufactured reality, the content of which is determined from afar by private parties that have a material interest in doing so… Alternatively, people in such places stare at their phones or open a novel, sometimes precisely in order to tune out the piped-in chatter. A multiverse of private experiences is accessible after all. In this battle of attentional technologies, what is lost is the kind of public space that is required for a certain kind of sociability.”

It’s scary stuff — genuinely I’m ok with the use of technology coming with some opportunity cost, but pit Telstra’s promise — its picture of connectivity — up against Qantas’, and I know which one I prefer. As I’ve read Crawford’s book I’ve started making changes — I’ve turned off all notifications on my phone, for example, to remove some interruptions (and found that liberating).

There’s something about the slightly different emotional responses evoked by these two ads that reveals something true about the world and about connection and about a ‘flourishing human life’ — I watch the Telstra ad and I feel like I’m meant to feel, they’ve pulled particular heart strings and there’s an inherent imagination and desire for ‘magic’ that it taps into. It’s better to have this sort of connection — this magic — than nothing at all, if there’s a gap that needs bridging something is better than nothing… but I watch the Qantas ad and there’s a greater longing, a deeper or truer emotion that it taps into for me. The ‘spirit’ of technology might stretch far enough to bridge a gap in a disembodied way, but Qantas is right — their ‘spirit’ does fly further. The Qantas ad makes me feel something deeper because it both reveals the limits of screen-mediated, excarnate, presence and the goodness of fleshy, embodied, incarnate, presence. We know that embodied presence is somehow realer and of more value than disembodiment. Part of being really human is being fleshy.

Being present.

Being attentive.

Being present requires paying attention — killing distractions. It requires actively resisting the claims made on our attention by our devices — our technology — our desire to be elsewhere. So that we are incarnate both in flesh and via our attention. When that happens — that’s where real connection can happen. Qantas’ vision and Telstra’s aren’t entirely compatible.

It’s the ‘holiday season’ — or Christmas season — which ultimately is the celebration of incarnation over excarnation; of Qantas style ‘bridging the gap’ over Telstra’s picture of connectivity. It’s the celebration of flesh and spirit trumping ‘spirit alone’. Christmas — the incarnation of Jesus — is God’s picture of connectivity, it’s God ‘bridging the gap’ as ‘Emmanuel’ (God is with us). It brings with it an ethos of presence; a valuing of the flesh, a sense that to be fully human is to be ‘in the flesh’ — incarnate — and that real love and connection requires this. Certainly it’s better to have ‘excarnate’ connection than no connection at all; but there’s a reason Qantas tugs at our heart strings in a way that Telstra doesn’t quite… it’s the same reason the Apostle John wrote, a couple of times:

“I have many things to write you, but I would prefer not to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come and speak with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” — 2 John 1:12 (cf 3 John 1:13-14)

This is the same John who wrote the Gospel which opens with the magic of the incarnation — the magic of presence — the sense that God bridging the gap between us and him required his presence in the flesh dwelling with us — the reason that Qantas trumps Telstra.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. — John 1:14

This is Christmas. This is what the holiday season is all about. This is what real connection, real presence, real humanity looks like. We flourish best by connecting with the God who incarnates himself, but whose ‘spirit flies further’ even than Qantas’ — but we also flourish more in life when our patterns of relating line up with God’s; when our character is shaped by his. Because this is how we were made to be by the one who made us and made us fleshy — that’s why Qantas makes us feel things that Telstra does not — by speaking to our hearts in a way Telstra doesn’t — a more complete and joyful way… the Qantas story taps into something true about God, the world, and us.

Home isn’t just where the heart is — or Telstra could have us home-and-absent. Home is where the flesh is; and the magic of the Bible’s story is that God made his home — a ‘dwelling’ with us — in Jesus dwelling among us, then by the Spirit dwelling in us, but ultimately, for eternity, where we’ll be home with him dwelling with us. Where we’ll be in the flesh; with our desire for a flourishing life answered. Telstra operates according to its vision of the future, well… here’s John’s vision of our future hope; our future home. We’re made for this sort of connection…

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘ He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

Why Christians should fight the war on Christmas (but not on the side you’d expect) and embrace Christmas cliches for all they’re worth

I went to the shops again this Christmas. If there is a war on Christmas, I reckon we Christians should sign up. And it there’s not. We should start one.

Like millions of other Aussies I found myself in the ‘temple’ of Westfield to participate in the pilgrimage of ‘annual Christmas shopping’ and the liturgies of handing over my plastic membership card and saying ‘paywave please’… to then be handed my relics and with a prayer-like wish or blessing, urged to have a ‘happy Christmas’… Walking through Westfield is character building; if nothing else.

My local Westfield,  ‘Garden City,’ was awash with Christmas cheer. Not just holiday season cheer, but good old ‘Christmas’ — I even heard Chris Tomlin’s new pepped up version of Joy To The World while I was browsing the bookshop.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king
Let every heart prepare Him room

The windows of the shops; and the ‘halls’ were well and truly ‘decked’ out for Christmas; Christmas wreaths marked with stars hung overhead, lit up to guide shoppers to whatever Christmas treasures or baubles they hoped would help them celebrate a merry and meaningful Christmas.

Many of the windows carried overt references to Christmas — not ‘X-mas’ and there were only a few ‘season’s greetings’ or ‘happy holidays’ to be found. There was the title of Jesus; the king; the Christ; in gilded letters or lights. Glittering. On display. Celebrated; or at least patronising our celebrations of a holiday festival that still bears his name in our calendars. It seemed to me that the war on Christmas in Australia was won, before it was even started, even if Scott Morrison got a little bit fired up at the Greens for their provocative banner this week.

But as I walked through the halls, and the shops, of Garden City — passing statues and images of happiness and a more ideal version of me; pictures and banners in windows, salespeople explaining how their items would meet my desires, or satisfy my loved ones — I saw a city that is very religious. It’s just a different type of religion — and it became clearer than ever that Christmas, as practiced in Australia, is a particularly religious holiday; but one that has been (as so many religious holidays before) annexed from an older religion and appropriated for the new. I saw the title ‘Christ’ displayed prominently, but no sign that his story was at all connected to the comings and goings of these modern worshippers. Before James K.A Smith described a trip to the “mall” as a modern temple structured ‘religiously’ and filled with modern visions of the good life and liturgical practices (which I wrote about last Christmas), the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Athens, a particularly religious city; and noticed the overt displays of religiosity — the ritual habits and practices of the people of Athens and where they looked for the fulfilment of their desires — in short, what they loved or worshipped, and he said:

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Acts 17:23

I saw plenty of inscriptions honouring the Christ; but no sense that people were particularly cognisant of the very thing they claim to be worshipping — and just how inconsistent the modern Aussie practice of Christmas is with the first one; and not just with the first one, but with the back story of the arrival of this Christ; the king.

Paul was reasonably gentle with the Athenians as he introduced this ‘unknown God’ to them; if they’d been Israelites — people familiar with God’s story, having inherited the legacy of his nation-building redemptive acts in history — he probably wouldn’t have been quite so patient. He said:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” — Acts 17:24-25

These are some incredible claims about the bigness of God; that he is so utterly transcendent that our human-made temples can’t contain him; nor anything in the universe. God is the giver. It’s worth noticing that — he gives us life, breath, and everything else. Christmas is, if nothing else, meant to remind us of this fundamental truth about God’s nature… In a few verse Paul says that we actually live, breathe, and have our being in him. Paul starts by painting the picture of God as infinite and worthy of worship, but also as generous.

If Christmas is about an act of God; it is this God, the God revealed in Christ, who it reflects. The God who though he is infinite, Paul says created us and designed the world so that humanity “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” God is not just infinite and generous but wants to be found by us. Which ultimately leads him to draw near to us.

Our temples; our Westfields; our attempts to satisfy the sort of inbuilt longing that Paul suggests might actually come from God, our attempts will fail. In approaching the ‘Unknown God’ this way, Paul seems to suggest it’s this inbuilt ‘seeking’ that leads us to build altars to ‘unknown Gods,’  to temple-building, or to religious festivals — our attempts to satiate this inbuilt craving will fail if we turn to created things to satisfy it. It’s this inbuilt seeking that has us battling traffic, struggling to find a parking spot, then wading through crowds while listening to bad music every year hoping that this one will be the Christmas that lives up to the hype. Spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, that will ultimately neither last nor satisfy.

And we fall for it. Every year.

Think of the stuff you’ve picked up for Christmas into your temple forays this year — or from the ‘virtual temple’ of online shopping — how much of your Christmas shopping could be described in the terms Paul uses to describe how we fill this existential hole… “We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.” (Acts 19:29). Pandora charms anybody?

What Paul is talking about as he speaks to the Athenians is idolatry. He sees us as worshippers; that our hearts are inevitably drawn towards something or some thing, if not first drawn to the God who created us (and these things). He sees the answer to idolatry coming in that first Christmas… but it comes with a warning that we should be paying heed to each time we see the declaration that Jesus is the king — the Christ — in a shop window while we’re pursuing these baubles; these trinkets; these idols.

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. ” — Acts 19:30-31

 

The story of Christmas is the story of God’s judging king coming into the world; not just a story about giving and generosity but about a particular gift from God. Jesus.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her king

This song has been around so long that these have become such cliched ideas, but these words should be a little ominous. This king has come to bring peace, and joy, and as a sign of God’s life-giving nature; he has come to make God known and answer this longing of our hearts. Yes. But also to judge.

These are ominous words about the omnipotent and omnipresent God making himself known, in human flesh, bridging the gap to us — ominous because they are not without cost; because this leaves us ‘without excuse’… We can’t plaster the name of Jesus around our shopping-temples and pretend not to have heard God’s story of sending a king into the world; a king who would make him known as ‘Immanuel’ or ‘God With Us’… And they should give us followers of the king a bit of pause when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas, but also, perhaps particularly, when it comes to picking a side in the war on Christmas. We Christians are a bit like Israel — we know God’s story of salvation and redemption, first for Israel and then for us in Christ. If Paul was going to speak to us Christians about the way we approach Christmas and Westfield, what would he say? Idolatry is one thing for people for whom God is unknown, it’s a totally different kettle of fish for those who are the people of the king. Idolatry is the subject of the first three of the ten commandments for God’s people in the Old Testament. The first two are obvious — they’re about worship (not putting other things, or gods, in God’s place), and not making created things into representations of God to worship those instead of God… but the third one isn’t just about saying ‘Jesus’ when you hit your thumb with your hammer or ‘Oh My God’ when you’re on reality TV (or Gogglebox)…

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” — Exodus 20:7

What could possibly be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to attach it to an idolatrous festival of greed, consumption and indulgence?

What could be more offensive to the nature of God’s generous saving act than to use it to boost the bottom line of big corporations at the expense of the minority world whose shoulders we trample down on? What could be a greater misuse of the name of Jesus than to use it to sell soaps and housing wares? The same Jesus who was born in squalor and shame in a stinking animal feed trough rejected by his father’s own home town who couldn’t even make a guest room available for his pregnant mother? Perhaps only politicising the name of Jesus to support worldly ‘empire building’ rather than owning the full implications of Jesus being Lord and king. You don’t have to look far abroad (cough Trump cough) to see political leaders politicising the name of Jesus to their own worldly ends… our most pernicious modern idols are that deadly cohort of sex, greed, and power… and the ‘war on Christmas’ inevitably involves people grasping for two of these three…

There’s an ‘unknown God’ element for many of the Aussies wishing one another a merry Christmas today; and an opportunity for us to say ‘hey, this holy-day we’re celebrating and that name you’re saying, let me proclaim what that’s all about to you’ — and we can do that gently and in a way that answers the deep longings of our hearts that we reach for in all sorts of rituals and cliches each Christmas. There’s a very fine line between cliche and comforting, habit forming, ritual or liturgy. A cliche was a printing tool used to quickly replicate common words or phrases in the printhouse so that characters could be stamped onto paper quickly — ritual or habit is what stamps a certain sort of character onto us. The word character actually comes from the Greek word for stamp… for cliche even. It doesn’t take much to give proper character forming meaning to the rituals we Aussies repeat each Christmas — the acts of generosity and hospitality — of gift giving; but disconnected from the original story they quickly become deforming rather than transforming — it takes connecting these rituals to the little baby in a manger (who’d grow to be a man on a cross) who the Bible says is the exact stamp/character of God’s nature — that’s the Greek behind Hebrews 1’s claim that in Jesus, at Christmas, God bridges the gap from infinite to finite to make himself known:

“in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” — Hebrews 1:2-3

This is the Jesus of Christmas. The Christ. It’s one thing to use the opportunities afforded by idol worship to make Jesus, the Christ, known to people in a way that answers what they crave; that connect them to the infinite, life-giving God — the source of our existence and being… it’s another thing entirely for Christians to try to fight a war on Christmas to keep the name of Jesus attached to an idolatrous festival that, without Jesus, is utterly deforming people; taking them from being people made in God’s image and re-shaping them through rituals of greed and consumption to represent utterly different God’s. Using the name of Jesus to pursue ‘gold’ or ‘silver’ or ‘stone’ or things made by human hands in temples to the modern day gods of greed and self-fulfilment is an abominable misunderstanding of the original Christmas — the incarnation — the drawing near in vulnerable human flesh — of the the one who made the universe.

It is reprehensible for Christians to fight for ‘Christmas’ to be put on the lips of more Australians this year without the character of Jesus answering their desires and reworking their hearts. If there’s a war on Christmas, then I’m siding with the Greens and drawing a line through the word Christ.

I don’t want the name of Jesus attached to silver baubles and golden trinkets to pay the temple taxes and make the rich richer. Just after Paul visits Athens he heads to Ephesus where the proclamation of Jesus as he really is upends the economy — it starts to cost the silversmiths who mould idol statues — characters even — and they revolt. That’d be embracing the true meaning of Christmas — upending the status quo, trotting in to your local Westfield with wheelbarrows full of cow manure, and inviting our equivalent of poor shepherds — our society’s nomadic outcasts — to Christmas lunch.

But in the meantime… Merry Christmas. In all its fullness. I hope you have a great day celebrating life, gift-giving, and sharing time, in the flesh, with those you love. There is nothing more Christmassy than this… I hope, even, that you found some delightful expressions of creativity and beauty to give and receive as gifts.

What’s fascinating about Joy To The World is that it sees these created things — nature — combining with the heavens to celebrate the birth of Jesus; these created things are meant to point us to Jesus, and the father who sent him into the world, not away from them. Their song is a song of joy; and they repeat it as our song bounces around, echoing through our lives and shaping our loves.

And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven, and Heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Saviour reigns
That all their songs employ
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

There’s so much about goodness and creativity and generosity and love and the spirit of this new (appropriated) secular festival we can and should affirm; the virtues at the heart of an Aussie Christmas are still things that repeat the sounding joy of that first Christmas even if only as an echo… just let these be a cliche in the right way…

Excuse my French: A response to Stephen McAlpine’s Plan B planning

The ever provocative Stephen McAlpine has a new post up urging Christians to head to the bunkers (hyperbole, just) in response to the postal survey and Royal commission findings. I like Stephen, I think he has useful insights and a cracking turn of phrase… and, along with Mikey Lynch we’ve talked about doing a bit of a ‘blog in the flesh’ type jaunt around the Benedict Option (the theme of his latest post); in the absence of an ‘in the flesh’ thrashing out of what the Benedict Option might look like for an Australian context and outside the context of the big-O Orthodox tradition Dreher writes from, here’s a written response… (the second response I’ve written to a thing of Stephen’s this week — you’ll have to stay tuned for an article in Zadok magazine that Arthur Davis from meetjesusatuni.com and I co-wrote about millennials and church).

The post, titled ‘Church: Plan for a plan B future’ is a call to jump on board the Dreher train; when it comes to Rod Dreher’s specific framework, his ‘option,’ I’ve already voiced my opinion and won’t rehash it here, except to say that I feel like both Dreher and Stephen underemphasise the external focus of Christian life and thus Christian community; you’ve got to train the way you play as a Christian; withdrawing for ‘training’ and formation will be being formed in precisely the wrong posture and with the wrong telos in view; if we’re to be images of Jesus, being transformed by the Spirit until he returns, we’re to be God’s visible representatives in the world — ambassadors for Jesus, not just embassies for Jesus where people might find themselves; and this ambassadorial role should thrust us into some uncomfortable places where we may well be crucified; but this crucifixion is formative and not a reason to withdraw, in fact, it’s a witness to the truth of the Gospel.

Stephen’s piece suggests there are two possible ways to reject Dreher’s (or his own) position. You’re either a liberal or an ostrich, who both misses the power of the cultural diagnosis, or is scared off by the ‘withdraw’ idea. There’s a third option which overlaps with this second one — those who simply don’t understand the complexity of Dreher’s very clear proposition, and so reject it.

“The naysayers have fallen in to two camps.  Those who like the change they see in the culture, affirm it, and think that the church needs to get with the times.  For them there is no need for strategic withdrawal, merely strategic cultural assimilation.  After all what’s not to like about an ageing, shrinking, faithless demographic in your denomination?”

“Others, more likely in the evangelical camp, hear the word “withdrawal” and think “retreat”, “surrender”, “give up”.  They fail to hear the words “strategic” or “return”, so loud are their heart palpitations.  I’ve been to a conference in which the speaker mentioned that naughty “w” word, and was afterwards surrounded by slightly narky people of the “no surrender” type.  May I humbly suggest if that is you, you’d don’t get it?”

Here’s my third way summary to save you getting to the end. I reject Dreher’s Option and McAlpine’s “Plan B” because I think we’re called to be cross-shaped disruptors of the worldly status quo, and not to do that from a position away from the public square or ‘withdrawal’ (as Dreher means it). We’re to take our lead from Paul’s infiltration of Caesar’s household, not from the monastic community of the Essenes or the Benedictine Order.

When Dreher talks ‘strategic’ and ‘return’, I wonder if Stephen shares his timeframe? It’s definitely not in the short term, if his analogy to Benedictine communities and the dark ages is the ballpark we’re playing in we’re not talking about a few years, or decades, but lifetimes; an epoch.

The whole Benedictine analogy is a little tediously anachronistic — these were pre-internet times where it was much harder to form rapid, community driven, responses to political pressure and change, and a much less easily global/transient time where it was much easier to talk about society as mono-cultural, and most of the ‘from above’ political or cultural movements were reasonably difficult to resist. I’m not suggesting global connectivity is a panacea to the pressures of the world, just that a strategy from the dark ages might not be the most imaginative solution (especially when it involves actively disconnecting from these technologies — non ironically suggested by a blogger who has gained global attention for his ideas and sales for his books from these platforms he sees as dangerously ‘deforming’).

I’ve read the Benedict Option. Twice… and plenty of Dreher’s blog posts both before its release and about the response to the book. I think the Benedict Option is a Rorschach test; it has it both ways on the language and descriptions so much that it just gets read according to how alarmist one might be; if you fully drink Dreher’s kool-aid, you’ll find, in it, an urging to monastic living and ark building, but more moderate readers will find plenty of strategies for thicker Christian community; what you won’t find is a manual for hopeful Christian engagement anywhere that looks like a ‘corridor of power’ — be it the legal fraternity, politics (perhaps apart from the particularly local variety), or workplaces where the business is actively engaged in the ‘market’ such that shareholders and stakeholders will want the business to bend the knee to Caesar, be it the Caesar of the political, economic, or sexual empires. Dreher would have us head to rural communities and bunker down in a mostly ‘closed’ but rich communal life, where we start small businesses, work with out hands, and structure a deep and local church (with Christian schools and businesses) that can whether the storms the world throws our way.

In his take we’re defeated already — we’re headed for a dark ages, and Christianity, in particular, is going to be expunged from influence and from the public square.

It’s hard for me to totally buy this narrative, when:

a) it was mostly produced before the ‘evangelical’ movement in America elected Trump and jumped into bed with the empire (thus destroying the credibility of the church and the doomsday scenario that says it has no power),
b) in Australia there’s a robust egalitarianism and distrust of all institutions that has been around since ‘institutional Christianity’ was responsible for whipping convicts and seeking to displace and dispossess the indigenous community (until Christians decided our indigenous neighbours were human, and so set apart ‘converting’ them by making them act like white people and institutionalising them in a literal sense).
c) our political institutions still have Christian trappings like the Lord’s Prayer, and a significant number of our politicians are Christians who speak in favour of religious freedoms even as they vote for same sex marriage as a democratic duty.
d) the church is perceived as a powerful institution wielding disproportionate influence on the shape of Australian society (particularly from the top down)
e) research (from McCrindle) suggests most Aussies don’t hate the church or Jesus at all; they do, however, seem to have problems with our stance on homosexuality and with church abuse; homosexuality is the top ‘issue’ that functions as a belief blocker for non-Christians, while church abuse is the top ‘behaviour’ that blocks belief.

It only seems to be Christians who believe that the pursuit of different rights and programs for LGBTIQ+ Aussies has to come at the direct expense of Christians. Now, this might be true, but I simply don’t believe the binary options for rejecting the Benedict Option as a strategy, nor do I buy that Dreher’s diagnosis adequately describes either the scene in Trumpland or in Australia. I’ve certainly not experienced ‘hate’ or being ‘pushed out’ of the public square by anybody but Christians — one prominent Aussie apologist said I should be de-platformed by the Gospel Coalition and called out as a liberal because of the stance I suggested people take on the postal survey…

I don’t buy this ‘there’s only one way… and it’s down’ narrative… I prefer the diagnosis in Wilkinson and Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse, that modern (global) society never just moves in one direction but is in constant tension; I also don’t believe that the church has nailed our public Christianity strategy (or theology) (a drum I’ve been banging for years). Stephen had a dig at me for not having an appropriate political theology in a back and forth on Facebook this week, but I’m simply not sure that assertion creates truth simply by being spoken…

In his own take on the Australian scenario, particularly following the legislation of same sex marriage and the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional abuse, Stephen says:

“For let’s face it, the wider culture does not look at the two events separately, no matter how much we say “Yes, but.”  We kinda need to stop saying “Yes, but” at some stage. We’re not being heard and we’re not likely to be.  The wider culture has signalled that it has made the precipitous move to celebrate sexuality in a manner that the church does not, and will, if pressed, simply state that the church has not been practising sexuality in the way that the church has publicly celebrated.

Don’t say “Yes but.”

For whether or not this is true of all churches, indeed of the majority, is not the point.  In this post-Christian culture as far as the world is concerned, we’re all in this together.  Our echo chamber conversations are a waste of time.  The media conversation sets the tone for the barbecue conversations, so you’d better get used to it.”

I’m unconvinced that the media is as hostile to Christianity as McAlpine suggests; for every Q&A lion’s den, there’s an Andrew Bolt. I am convinced the Aussie media field is massively fragmented and that people are increasingly committed to getting their news and analysis from echo chambers that reinforce existing beliefs and hasten the polarisation and tribalism of the Australian community — which is exactly the danger of the Benedict Option. It supports a tribal, self-interested, form of Christianity that offers a hopelessness in the face of the world’s problems rather than a practice of loving engagement in issues that provides our proclamation of the logos of the Gospel with an ethos to match.

If an inability to have truly civic dialogue and the politicisation of every thing public are two pressing cultural issues in our fragile democracy, then why would Christians withdraw our voice from the public square — particularly given the way this plays out in barbecue conversations? Why would we not seek to create, curate, or patronise (in the sense of supporting) public squares that are less polarising and more open to civic conversation (rather than firing off opinion pieces to The Spectator). Why would we cede defeat and so stop trying? I don’t speak in total ignorance here, plenty of my professional life was spent engaging with the journalists who are now in large media institutions in capital cities, and the most ‘hostile’ or outspoken atheist of the bunch is the one who occasionally engages in civil conversation about politics on my Facebook wall…  An anecdote like this is not data, but the same ABC that employs Tony Jones to run Q&A, also employed Scott Stephens to run a religion and ethics portal, and to host a radio show discussing faith in Australia.

Here’s Stephen’s take (which does give us a time frame — a generation — but also a scenario that drives his ‘Plan B’ strategy):

“So I am all for religious freedoms and freedom of conscience in the public square.  I am committed to pushing for governments to continue funding faith schools that are not required to sign off on anti-discrimination legislations in terms of employment.  I am committed to doing so until it proves impossible.  Which it will indeed prove. So we’d better have a Plan B.  If we don’t we’re plain stupid and playing stupid.

For me, Plan B is Plan Benedict.  And the reason is simple:  I believe that the current hard secular context will push and push and push, and then find that the pendulum swings back against it somewhat.  True there may be irretrievable losses for the church in terms of state favour, but if the goal is a strong church that can demonstrate in word and deed that it runs counter to the culture, and that it is, in my term, “repellently attractive”, then that is a win as far as I am concerned.

Of course you will only see that as a win if you’re prepared to put in the hard work for a generation.”

It’s not all doom and gloom. These are actually fighting words fuelled by a vision of the secular landscape in France (which is different, again, to the secular landscape in the US, and makes me wonder why the secular landscape in Australia has to be the same as those, or even an amalgam).

“The point of the Benedict Option is not that we hide away as the culture gets worse and worse, but that we prepare ourselves for the new landscape that we will have to negotiate; a landscape that will be harsher and that will require a deeper commitment to a seemingly less plausible, more marginalised counter culture – the church of God.

It’s about toughening up, creating alternative institutions for our children to learn and grow in.  Think Star Wars and Jedi Knight training, as opposed to hill-billy fundamentalists.  B/O-ers are planning on coming back, if Jesus doesn’t first.

And will the cultural aggression die down to a point where we can find a non-contested place in the public square again?”

If you’re not in a monotheistic culture where the public square is a temple to a particular god, the public square is always contested; it will always be contested until the return of Jesus. This contest is not reason to withdraw but to remain as faithful witnesses; withdrawing to ‘prepare for a new landscape’ is not the model of the faithful church in Revelation who stays in the public square to be killed and ridiculed (and ultimately vindicated).

Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. Their bodies will lie in the public square of the great city—which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt—where also their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial.The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

But after the three and a half days the breath of life from God entered them,and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here.” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” — Revelation 11:7-12

Now. Everybody has their own theological hot take on Revelation, but because I believe it had to speak to its first readers in an apocalyptic ‘revelatory’ voice about the situation they were facing that it has to describe their reality first, and so it describes reality living in a world where powerful human institutions are often ‘beastly’ minions of Satan who cause damage and oppression, especially to those who disrupt their ‘rule’ by challenging the worldly status quo; those disruptive voices (historically) either succeed, or are crucified — a different sort of success… often success leads to the people who win it taking on the mantle of worldly power; and so, Christendom was not all roses though it is, as Stephen acknowledges, the bedrock of western society. Which makes me wonder why he is so pessimistic about our ability to wield change in this moment when the church has been an agent of transformation in the past, and he hopes, following Benedict, that we might be again in the future.

The way we bring transformation — the way the early church did — is through cruciform difference — through faithful witness to the point of suffering, in the public square. That is how God works. It is ever so. Not by removing ourselves from the square, but by staying, and seeking its good, hopeful that God might also work through that…

 

And so. The French. Stephen shares some thoughts from a French friend about the way the Aussie scene mirrors the French; and his fears that we’re heading into Plan B territory without a plan; unprepared.

“To put it crassly, French secularism – or laïcité as they call it –  has won.  It doesn’t have to be shouty because the contest is seemingly over.  In other words, our Plan B is French Christianity’s small “p” plan.  There simply were, are and will be no other options in the near future.”

In France, Stephen says, there is no place for religion in the public square:

“Now that sounds terrible.  I want a religious discussion in the public square.  But, as Daniel observed about Australia, the idea of open-minded discussion is well in the past. We’re kidding ourselves if we think the public square in Australia is open-minded, fair and tolerant.  And our opponents would simply say, that’s exactly how we felt and now we’re getting our own back.  And we can protest that all we like, but it’s what is playing out.  If you’ve got no Plan B, you’re in trouble.”

I reckon Stephen is every bit as educated in the ways of the media as I am; but I think we’re being sold a pup here if we’re to believe that the public square is the institutional media of yesteryear; that the ‘public square’ is the media of the elite, or some sort of homogenous forum. I think this monolithic take on the public square is outdated (and perhaps if it were truly the case then then Benedict Option would be a good one; and we could go create (local) media-institutions-as-echo-chambers for our own people, or Christian pirate radio… or just tune in to commercial Christian radio I guess…  This is an attitude I’ve found prevalent in ‘establishment’ types (after a recent post I was challenged to prove my claim I’d read ‘piece after piece’ about Christianity being under attack, and this claim was dismissed because there was nothing ‘mainstream’ from ‘credible’ platforms). Old media thinking is going to get us an old media strategy — and not even our politicians are playing that game come election time anymore…

The public square isn’t just your editorial page in the Oz, or in the Herald, or Q&A (to start with, the readerships and audiences for those platforms are plummeting), and nor is it these places informing public opinion. The public square is your Facebook newsfeed and the online presence you stake a claim for via publication and curation of content. The public square is contested not because there is one dominant voice, but because there are now a chorus of voices bombarding us, but this also means we have the opportunity to curate our own public space, and invite people in to the discussion by how we operate it. It may be that I’ve picked option one in ‘rejecting the Benedict Option’ in Stephen’s opinion, but I’ve not found the ‘public square’ I play in in the social media world to be as he has described it. The challenge for us as we curate and create content for this public square is to understand the mediums and platforms (how algorithms work) so as to play them creatively; and to engage in a way that is both interesting and compelling (and yes, different to the world). Life in the ‘new world’ will, as Stephen suggests, require creativity and thick community, but not a sense of hopelessness about what that sort of community can achieve beyond its boundaries, or about the tangible difference such a community might represent to those who sense in it the ‘aroma of life’.

While Stephen’s piece is about as optimistic as he gets, here’s his conclusion, with a bit of French flourish.

“Perhaps it’s time for us in the church in places such as the US, Australia and to a lesser extent, the UK, to look to places like France as our example.  Because that’s the future that is coming.  2018 might be the year to look to hard secular Europe and do some reconnaissance (another nice French word!)”

I want to suggest a different French word starting with R; and (first) one starting with E. The problem I had with the Benedict Option’s pessimism about our ability to be economic influencers is it lacked imagination; it pushed a return to non-market driven professions, particularly local artisanal businesses — work with our hands — and there’s nothing wrong with that, there’s indeed, something beautiful and formative about that sort of work… but I wonder if there’s more ‘imaginative’ rejections of the status quo — of ‘market Babylon’ in being entrepreneurs (a French word, contra President Bush), particularly social entrepreneurs who reject the status quo of participating in the market and seek the good of communities and neighbours by explicitly rejecting an idolatrous tug every bit as powerful as the world’s take on sex.

When David Foster Wallace (DFW) talked about ‘default settings’ and our worship of sex, money, and power in his famous This Is Water, he was describing the way the world pulls us away from who God made us to be (though without God being in the picture). The ‘beastly’ world of the book of Revelation… the ‘real world’ we live in…

“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it”

DFW was describing the sort of worldly forces that Dreher (and McAlpine) see taking the world to a new dark ages… being entrepreneurs who imagine ways to reject this status quo may provide us a path away from the dark ages, or a dark age strategy before we even get there, especially if the world we live in is in a constant stage of ‘democratised’ flux, where everybody truly is their own king.of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms. Being entrepreneurial in a deliberate rejection of the ‘merry hum’ of this deadly world is, perhaps, a more optimistic form of withdrawal that doesn’t involve quitting the economic scene, but seeking to disrupt it by being present and playing by different rules.

Perhaps I’m naive; but the team at Thankyou would be a pretty compelling anecdote in favour of this being a live option (perhaps especially for those dreaded, flighty, millennials who all want to be CEO of their own company at the beginning of our careers).

But the other word I want to push back with is renaissance; I’m not sure why we’re getting our marching orders from the cultural move that was a protective measure against the dark ages rather than from the rapid movement out of the dark ages. I’m also not sure why when we look back to church history we look at what saw the ‘Christian’ empire effectively collapse, rather than the church’s strategy that saw it gain a foothold (I call it the ‘Diognetus Option’)… If we’re going to talk about being a creative minority let’s not, in the same breath, talk about not participating in the creative arts (or, following Dreher, avoiding the formative power of the television). Let’s harness that power and seek to create art that is excellent and present in the now fragmented media landscape. You don’t need a distribution deal from a big Hollywood power broker to influence ‘culture’ any more…

I was struck today as I read a piece by Alan Noble on the Gospel Coalition, The Disruptive Witness of Art, that it offers a sort of hopeful antithesis to the Benedict Option, of the type I hope his forthcoming Disruptive Witness will continue, a push towards cultural renaissance without cultural abandonment or cultural capitulation. A via media via the media.

Bearing witness to the Christian faith in the 21st century requires a disruptive witness,  one that unsettles our neighbor’s assumptions about life within the immanent frame. One powerful way to accomplish this is through interpreting and creating cultural works that speak not only to our minds but also our bodies, emotions, and memories. Taylor has given us valuable tools to better understand our neighbors and the kinds of anxieties that haunt both them and ourselves. To cultivate the deep knowledge to apply Taylor’s ideas, we will need significant investment in the Christian liberal and creative arts.

The sort of art he’s talking about isn’t the art produced in a parallel community for the formation of that community; but in and through engagement with the world and the ‘creative commons’ — or the public square that includes more than just politics and political discussions. That seems to me a more exciting option or plan for the church to pursue. One that requires imagination and listening (to the world); one that means training the way we play, not heading off to some training field but racking up game time experience; because that’s what counts.

The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

For the couple of months I’ve poured more hours than I care to count into The Sims 2. I even built this cathedral with the aim of turning young Jonesy Jones into a mega-church planter (for a while he was appropriately employed as ‘Cult Leader’). In a triumph of church architecture, I built him his own light-filled ‘crystal cathedral,’ with couches for pews, a cruciform layout, a podium as a pulpit, a buffet table as an altar, and state of the art musical instruments in the wings. Jonesy drives a not-too-ostentatious car (the second most expensive in the game, lodged between ‘people mover’ and ‘sports car’ in cost, but high on ‘approval’ from those who track his spending), which is parked in the driveway of his modest, though comfortable, manse, on site.

He, ironically, lost all his friends in the move to this building (I clicked the wrong button), so needs to rebuild his little human empire congregation; though he has maxed out his charisma skills, and he’s a naturally fun guy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s dangerous, because Jonesy Jones also craves human affection, so his happiness is going to depend lots on how people respond to this project.

In short, I’m hoping Jonesy is nothing like me — but there’s a danger that, at my worst, he is a projection of who I think I should be in my darker moments…

It has taken me a little bit to figure out why I find the idea of clicking and controlling the lives of little simulated people so compelling; and to figure out what it is that drives the choices I make as to how they live, and the jobs they do, and the families they create and the homes they build.

So much of it is about control.

Unlike in the real world where I exercise almost little to no control over the lives and decisions of the real people around me — kids, family, colleagues, or congregants — and where that can feel like I’m flinging myself around a sinking ship trying to peg gaps if I’m not careful to remember I’m not God… the Sims lets you play at being God in a controlled environment. Though you’re mostly ‘in control,’ it’s still a matter of ‘life and death’ — a sim can die if you accidentally deprive them of the essentials of life — food, rest, friends, and fun — or if there’s some sort of ‘divine’ action where, for example, repairing an electrical device goes wrong, or a meteor strikes you while you’re looking through a telescope — but you know these risks and love your little sims, so you direct them away from harmful behaviour and towards the straight and narrow… mostly… I might have deliberately killed a sim or two in my time by swallowing them up with a meat eating plant, boxing them in to a room with no doors, or removing a ladder from a swimming pool — I mean, who hasn’t… but I’ve never killed a sim who didn’t deserve it.

I really have been pondering my addiction; there’s perhaps nothing more repetitive than the accretive clicking of the mouse required to build a little Sim empire, and so there’s something oddly liturgical about this game and the story it tells about what life as God is like, or perhaps what life ‘in control’ in the real world might feel like. There’s a danger a game like The Sims feeds a certain dissatisfaction about real life — not just that conflict in the real world can’t be solved by a few pillow fights, or hangouts, or some time around the pool table — but that other people aren’t so easily directed. I can’t just click a mouse and make my problems, or theirs, go away. I can’t organise the lives of others to achieve collective goals or to pursue my own personal narrative.

And, as dad, pastor, and colleague, this bothers me. There are so many spheres of my life where, if I were honest, I’d prefer life to be more like the Sims.  There has never been a time in my life where I’ve felt less in control of the decisions and actions of others, nor more like I’d like to be in control of those decisions in some sort of ‘ideal world’. I’ve been solo parenting two of our kids as part of a 13 day trip for Robyn and our oldest; and our house looks nothing like the carefully curated houses I build in the Sims (with excess space and plenty of distractions, plus a paid cleaner to keep things in order).

I don’t have a highly cultivated ‘personal influence’ ability that allows me to direct and influence sims who aren’t even under my Godlike powers as part of the ‘family’… I’m not a cult leader. I don’t cultivate a following because of my charisma which means people will literally stand for many ‘sim hours’ to hear me speak (I’m lucky if I can hold a room for 15 minutes of my allotted 25 and actual 30).

Our little church community doesn’t have a building to call our own, not a cruciform cathedral with a glass roof like my Sims one, or just a humble hall. And so we’ve been subject to the whims of other hosts (though God has providentially provided an alternative meeting place in fairly bizarre circumstances) — as of January 7 we’ll have moved venues twice in a four month period. We live, it seems, in a perpetual state of spatial flux. Never knowing where home is, and making the best of whatever spot we’re in (or looking for something more suitable), but it’s not ultimately up to us where we land. We don’t own a space, and buying one with the right zoning would require an act of powers greater than mine (both God and the Brisbane City Council).

I can’t click a button to make people sit in the (comfortable) pews. People are leaving our community for reasons from the practical to the political to the theological; and if I could click and send them somewhere — if I were God — I’d keep them and have those decisions resolved around a table and in conversation (or if none of that worked out, my Sims like temptation would be to find some button I could click to make them think like me). People are also joining our community and changing the ‘family ecosystem’ in ways that are great, but also part of the challenge of a dynamic and moving organism — ways that reduce ‘control’ for any one person (me) as we grow.

And yet, in these moments of uncertainty and this growing sense that I’m not in control, I guess I’ve had two options. I could’ve spent these many hours of ‘down time’ responding to these circumstances in many constructive ways (not just virtual reality contructive ways), and yet, I’ve chosen to play a stupid computer game as some sort of catharsis (I’m sure it has worked, and I’m not the sort to be negative about the power of games, or about their entertainment value and the need for rest and recreation). The Sims could teach me to be frustrated about life outside the virtual realm, or it could point me to the one who is in control.

In the midst of my addiction to The Sims I went along to a discussion night on James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love, which, along with Smith’s other ‘Cultural Liturgies’ works provides a useful Augustinian (and Biblical) account of human behaviour and how people change; the idea that we feed our desires and our sense of how life is to be lived by repetitive action — or liturgies — the best, most powerful, and most dangerous of these liturgies, in terms of formation, are the ones that suck us in through our imaginations and our feelings, not through reasoned repetition… but the mindless stuff. When I was asked what habitual actions I hadn’t really assessed in a sort of behavioural audit, I was tempted to gloss over just how many hours I’d spend in this alternate reality. This fantasy world.

This made me wonder what it is my repetitive clicks and the story they are attached to in my imagination — my participation in The Sims and its world and stories — what it forms in my desires and my approach to the world beyond the computer screen. Am I picturing my little sims as real people? Projecting my control into the real world and assessing reality through escapism? Am I feeling dissatisfied that the real world is not like this virtual one? Perhaps not consciously, but am I turning to this game and others like it where I know I am totally in control to escape from a world where I know I’m not… probably… that’s what escapism is all about (and it’s not always a bad thing to escape — a point Tolkien makes brilliantly in On Fairy Stories).  Am I overthinking this? Perhaps… or does this complete control feed a dissatisfaction about the way things are in relationships with real people? Am I likely to idolise control — or a world where I wield godlike power?

Probably.

Is this dangerous?

Definitely.

In exactly the same way as trying to play the superhero pastor… trying to be God, or any recognition that you are not… is absolutely toxic to a healthy life in the real world, but especially deadly in the context of Christian ministry where so many churches have fallen apart because of an approach to leadership that looks just like the pastor is trying to play the Sims with a congregation that isn’t ‘their flock’ but God’s. It’s this desire to be in control (and perhaps a belief a leader should be) that I suspect leads to abusive practices in both public and private. Feeding this desire is dangerous; especially if the desire is focused through a lens of self-pity, or the flip-side, entitlement and self-interest.

There are fleeting moments when I believe I want to be in control. To be able to direct people, to ‘helpful’ places of course. Those are the times when I am sinfully tempted to act like a cult leader, or to get a pattern for leadership from something other than the cross of Jesus. The cross isn’t just a pattern for good Sims church architecture. It’s a way of being in the world; of being ‘in the church’ that teaches me that it’s not by my might or power than anything happens, but by the willingness of God to send his son into the world in a picture of leadership that looks a lot like self-emptying service of others.

I am not in control. I am not the artist or the author — the creator — creating a world with the lives and images of other people.

Other people don’t exist to play my game or be clicked into place.

Other people should be thankful that life is not The Sims, and that I am not the mouse-like God in such a world.

I don’t type these as a mantra to remind myself of things I ought to believe are true (in case you’re worried I’m some sort of narcissist trying to talk myself out of cult-leading). I type these as truths that are fundamental to how the universe actually is… but that are counter to the bit of the human heart The Sims might feed if we let it.

I do not have the sort of control in the real world that I do in the Sims, and I do not want to…

But more than that, I should be thankful that I do not.

What a crushing responsibility that would be to bear — to be responsible for the decisions of every individual in my orbit, or of the rhythms and life of any community or family. I need more chaos in my gaming diet to remind me that I am not in control (so I started playing Zombie survival/horror game 7 Days To Die, which is reminding me that having literally no control over life or death is just as debilitating and frustrating), but more than that I need to keep prayerfully remembering that it is God who authors both my story and the stories of those in my life  — whether they’re in or out of the church community he has placed me in — as part of his story… Or as Paul put it in his sermon in Athens, from Acts 17… that he gives us life, and breath, and everything else — even the sense of how little control we wield — so that we might seek and find him, the grand architect of the cosmos.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

I need to keep seeing my job (as parent, pastor, and person) not as exercising control (or even influence) but as pointing people to the one who is in control. I like another thing that Paul said about how he approached this task knowing that God is God, and we are not. He doesn’t click people into place, or persuade and manipulate through power, coercion, or deception. He lives and preaches the Gospel of the crucified Jesus, and lets God be God.

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:1-2

 

Of slippery slopes, stairs, and stepping machines: how to be hopeful when the world is moving

The official ‘no’ campaign made their public presence about everything but marriage; they made it about the ‘slippery slope’ — particularly same sex parenting (robbing kids of a mum or dad), and a ‘radical gender ideology’ where ‘genderless marriage’ is the first step towards a marxist/queer agenda that is represented by Roz Ward’s Safe Schools. That is; they created a slippery slope.

The politicians responsible for orchestrating the postal survey and the proposed changes to marriage insisted this was a single issue vote, about one particular thing, the definition of marriage. Now. It’s not wrong to ask questions about trajectories and ramifications, and I do think handling it as a single issue was perhaps naive when it comes to understanding how integrated faith and practice is for religious people, but if you’re looking for the architects of the slippery slope; it’s us; if the no case is correct, there’s now a political mandate for the government to rapidly slide the whole way down the rainbow without each step being checked, weighed, and balanced.

It might feel like this is a slippery slope if we want to feign ignorance (or actually be ignorant) of the campaign for gay rights in Australia; but what if we take a longer term view of things around, for example, one of the key players in the push for same sex marriage. And what if we see this not as the start of a slope, or the edge of a precipice, but rather a next step. And what if there’s actually a legitimate case to be made that at least some of those steps where steps up.

One of the faces of the push for marriage equality was Tasmania’s Rodney Croome. He’s one of the architects of this path (whether slope or steps), and here’s my case that this isn’t a slippery slope — or if it is that it’s an incredibly slow slope with ample opportunity to change course or even stand up… Croome was an activist for gay rights in 1994 (and before that). In 1994, Croome and his partner presented themselves to the police, in Hobart, to be charged with the crime of being homosexual. Now. Maybe that was the start of an inevitable slope that leads to Safe Schools, or maybe it was just one step towards getting rid of some laws that are actually unjust restrictions of conscience that are coupled with a profound and legal right to truly discriminate against somebody for a choice about their identity and community of practice… The longer view makes something like a campaign for same sex marriage seem more like a further step in a journey than like one of those scenes in a movie where the floor drops out from under the protaganist and they endure a rapid descent (hopefully into a pile of freshly made laundry, or a rubbish bin, rather than flames or snakes).

Perhaps if we had this perspective we’d be able to better hear and understand why these LGBTIQ+ activists aren’t content with marriage equality and are moving on to the next thing on their list; the next ‘step’ towards the Australia they want to live in. Perhaps we should see more of an analogy between how they are pursuing their trajectory and the argument we’re making for religious freedom.

The Australian Presbyterian magazine ran a piece about the threats to religious freedom wrapped up in marriage equality. It included this piece. I’d love you to flip the logic and the actors around; picture Croome and his partner before they were eventually successful in decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania.

“It will intimidate religious leaders (and their insurers) with the relentless threat of anti-discrimination lawsuits; traditional moral teaching will become something to be whispered in private. There ain’t room in this village for both state-enforced homosexual orthodoxy and Christian moral orthodoxy”

Let me rewrite it the way I see it… for a bit more context, Croome’s decision to front the police was because the Federal Government brought in (in keeping with the UN) a right to sexual privacy that had not previously existed and Croome wanted to test that this law did, in fact, invalidate Tasmania’s laws (the UN had also specifically ruled against Tasmania’s laws).

“It’s hard to get insurance (or legal recognitions) for our relationship with the law actually declaring our relationship illegal; homosexual relationships are something we only whisper about in private. This village state-enforces Christian moral orthodoxy against homosexual orthodoxy.”

The incline on that slippery slope is pretty steep; so it’s been hard for the LGBTIQ+ community to climb to this point.

I’ve had some pushback in the last couple of days about my commitment to a generous pluralism; here’s a failure of pluralism right here — where it was not offered to the gay community. This is why they are marching (literally at Mardi Gras) towards a particular victorious outcome. Because we weren’t generous or pluralistic. Now that the boot is, perhaps, on the other foot, and coming down on us, we have the opportunity to take our lumps and learn our lesson.

And look, I like religious freedom, I’d like us to use our religious freedom to be religious rather than secular; and I think we get it by better explaining that there is no secular sacred divide for Christians (and we probably need to explain this to Christians as well). I think generous pluralism is actually, short of state controlled monotheism, the only system that will allow religious freedom in a properly secular democracy. It’s also the answer to the potentially new state-controlled monotheism if the doomsday prophets are right.

My favourite book I read this year was Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive The Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics, at the End of the World. They make two points that are important for this post. First, that pluralism is the hopeful and virtuous way forward, even if we fail, even if we’re on a slippery slope, or over a precipice. They reject responding to change with fear.

“The better answer to the fear that accompanies a Secular age is to refocus the work of politics to finding common cause; locating, building, and maintaining overlapping consensus among our many and multiple modernities. There is no turning the clock back to pre-apocalypse times. There is only identifying and building a renewed consensus. This is what Taylor describes as a project worthy of any society deserving of the name “secular.” He argues that we need a radical redefinition of the secular. What should be called secular, he says, is not the inverse of the religious, but the (proper) response of the political community (the state) to diversity…

… It calls for more, not less, pluralism in the public sphere. It calls for that understanding and those practices to be tested in dialogue to find areas of overlapping concern and agreement.”

Wilkinson and Joustra quote Alisdair MacIntyre (author of After Virtue) to suggest this dialogue requires “constructive disagreement” where we speak frankly and honestly (and publicly) about “the places people won’t agree, the places we might agree, and the places that will be resolutely ruled out of bounds,” and then we figure out how to negotiate that into how the law works and how public space is stewarded. They quote political scientist Daniel Philpott, who says this sort of rationale requires us to both hear and speak “full rationales — untruncated, unsanitized, unfiltered,” dialoguing towards” mutual understanding with those different views.” I’m not seeing that from either pole in the culture wars, or the fallout of the changes to the Marriage Act, we certainly, as Presbyterians, didn’t practice this seeking understanding in our contributions to the postal survey debate (or participation in the Coalition for Marriage).

Second, and most importantly for the slippery slope v steps debate… Wilkinson and Joustra argue that in the scheme of human history, and also in the divine story of cyclical judgment and restoration, or exile and return, we can be sure that no changes before the new creation are permanent and that monolithic societies are incredibly difficult to maintain (especially in the west with a bent towards individualism). Or, as they express it in a mantra throughout the book:

“Society moves in all directions. It’s not “one thing,” which is to say that it’s not just monolithic “society,” and it’s not headed purely up or down at any moment.”

We’re not on a slippery slope; or stairs; as a society we’re on a step machine… moving upwards and downwards… and perhaps in less binary directions — left and right.

So what do we do with this?

If it isn’t just a slippery slope to our doom; or the air over a precipice where we wait for God to blow us back on to solid ground…

If society is an elliptical machine that gives us reason for hope, rather than despair, so long as we as a community of people bound together by a story and a common practice (being the church) have a vision for where we’re going and how that might be pursued for not just our good but the good of our neighbours.

“In Between Babel and Beast, the theologian Peter Leithart argues that there is both good news and bad news for this new politics. First, the good news — we need not abandon the city. The public work of realizing the best of the motivating ideals of our age is work for religious people, Christians and others alike, that can bear and even has borne real fruit. The battle moves in all directions.

But the bad news: Babylon, into which we may pour our energies here, in our lifetime, will never be the New Jerusalem. We don’t build it, any more than we are the point or end of the story, the lodestar of authenticity. We can sing the Lord’s song, but we don’t build the Lord’s city.

Like Daniel, we must make compromises. That means we must temper our expectations and not become defeated when everything is not perfect, yet. But some compromises are better, and others are worse. Wisdom is knowing the difference. Our popular culture is already very busy trying to discern that. Taylor writes, “As Pascal said about human beings, modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.”

We might look to someone like Croome as an example; patiently working towards the good and freedom of our community (and surely the removal of unjust laws have been for the good of us all) while working towards the good of his community within that community (and there’s no doubt that the change to the marriage laws and other future agenda items are seen by this community as the path towards their good).

What would it look like for us to do this as people marinated in and formed by the Gospel?

That’s what we have to figure out.

A tale of two thieves and three crosses: how we might not be in the spot we think we are when it comes to suffering like Jesus

Jesus says the world will hate us because of him (Matthew 10:22) and that when we are hated we should remember that he was hated first (John 15:18).

There’s a bit of pre-emptive back patting going on at the moment because boy, does the world seem to hate us. We must be doing something right if we’re being crucified… right? Jesus did tell us to take up our cross and follow him; so doing that should always involve crucifixion.

It doesn’t need to be said, but we ought to be careful that we understand our suffering rightly; I’m all for a bit of cruciformity (I even wrote my thesis on how our public Christianity and attempts to persuade ought to be excellently cruciform), but it’s possible to experience the pain agony of being hated and humiliated for reasons other than being faithful to Jesus.

It’s possible that in our excitement about finally being softly persecuted in the public square; of being made a spectacle of; that we’re missing that the reason this is happening is actually because we’re guilty.

I’d be more sympathetic to the idea that the current round of public crucifixions of Christians were because of the name of Jesus and an echo of the treatment of Jesus if the people doing the complaining had done any speaking about Jesus in the lead up to this treatment, not simply spoken for a traditional position in the face of an oppressed and vulnerable minority seeking to establish what they understand as a basic human right.

There were, of course, three people executed on Calvary on that first easter. And it’s easy for us Christians to slip into identifying with the one on the middle, rather than those places on the right and left. And of course, we should. We share in the death of Jesus so that we might share in his resurrection.

One criminal, of course, joined with the crowd — with the whole world — as it crucified Jesus; rejecting him. Hating him. Hating God. Hating truth. Hating the idea that life is only truly lived if it is lived submitting to his rule not our own. That real human identity depends on who or what you worship; that what you worship has consequences; that if you’re not worshipping God you’ve declared war on him… that we don’t just get to choose who to be as the “Lord’s of our tiny skull sized kingdoms” as David Foster Wallace once put it… the world hated that idea and hates it still. The world hated Jesus because he claimed that the flourishing human life was found not in morality or legalism or the laws of the land, not in marriage, or family, or career, or success… but in him, and him alone. In dying and rising with him.

More often than we’d like to admit, we’re like this first guy. We’re on our cross and angry at the world; angry at God… but our anger at the world is because we haven’t been able to use the power of the world to get what we want. These criminals were likely leaders of the same insurrection that Barabbas had been arrested for… people who wanted to overthrow the government to shape it according to their religious beliefs. So we feel a great injustice when we’re being hated because we know, deep down, our convictions are truer than the people who’ve put us there… hating Jesus because he didn’t play the power game. He could’ve overthrown Caesar with the sword, and an army of angels, if he’s really the Messiah, but here he is on a cross… what a disappointment to this thief and his political beliefs.

This criminal hurled words at Jesus; adding to insult to injury, literally. The other criminal understood something about himself and the guy being killed unjustly next to him at that moment.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” — Luke 23:39-41

It’s easy to think that we, like Jesus, are blameless when it comes to the hatred thrown at us. It’s easy to think that we’ve done nothing wrong. But in this little episode we’re probably more like this second criminal; rightly under the same sentence as the one who throws insults at Jesus. Punished justly; hated for things we’ve actually done; dependent on God’s grace and mercy.

If anybody teaches us the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ principle, it’s this second thief looking at the first. He gets it. He gets that the hatred he is experiencing is totally deserved; that he brings nothing in his hands to King Jesus, and so he turns to him and sees something in his unjust suffering that makes something click. He sees some sort of game changer for understanding life in this world against life in God’s kingdom. And he makes a shift from being justly hated, to having Jesus be hated in his place. Because it’s not just the government who weigh up and dish out hate for sin… it’s God…

It’s telling that the second thief, having come to this realisation, doesn’t get into a slanging match, or culture war, with the other criminal. He answers him gently, and with a question, don’t you fear God? He makes a declaration about who Jesus is, followed up by this act of repentance — of turning his life over to the king.

“Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:42-43

To this point in the story the crowd, the state (and its soldiers), and everybody else has been hurling insults at Jesus. Hating him. And straight after the thief getting what he deserves from the state gets much more than he deserves (in a good way) from Jesus, the land goes dark, Jesus dies, and the centurion who’d been standing there for this little exchange; a symbol of power — of the very power overseeing Jesus’ execution, of worldly authority — when he sees how Jesus faces hatred unjustly, he declares “Surely this was a righteous man.”  His testimony echoes the words of the thief… and I like to think this injustice haunted him, plagued his conscience, turned him to the guy on the centre cross. But I don’t think he lost any sleep over the just death of two rebels and the state’s hatred of their crimes.

It’s easy to think we’re suffering for being just like the guy on the middle cross. And it’s great when we do… but sometimes actually recognising that we’re justly being hated for being jerks, and pointing to that guy in the middle and saying ‘you’re innocent and king of the kingdom of heaven, help me out in my guilt’ is actually a greater testimony than claiming to be blameless. Sometimes it might even convince those powerful members of the state who make decisions and stuff.

The war didn’t begin last week; and we’re not the victims

Are we Christians that blinded by our own ‘plight’ that we are utterly unable to comprehend the actions of others?

Are we that blind to how systemic and institutional stuff works that we think our not being complicit in particular actions means that we, as individuals, bear no responsibility for how people have acted in the name of our belief or institutions in the past?

It doesn’t feel, for most of us Christians, like we’ve been oppressors or haters, so it feels unjust to us to be hated and oppressed… but while we haven’t felt that way others have felt oppressed and hated in our name — and worse, in the name of Jesus. And how we behave now can either hurt or heal. And we’re picking the ‘hurt’ option.

Are we so tone deaf that we think now is the time for us to be sounding out doomsday scenarios and trying to turn the recently liberated into the new oppressors?

How do we think those recently liberated should behave in a moment of ascendency (or liberation)? What do we think their cause should be?

I’m reading post after post, think piece after think piece, about how Christians are now the victims, when we should be, in my opinion, convincing our culture that we are not perpetrators. We’re claiming to be the victims while a government body investigates our systemic failure when it comes to abuse; when our stocks are at an all time low because this Royal Commission follows years of revelations about members of the church behaving badly with the most vulnerable people in our care.

I’m reading about how the LGBTIQ+ community hates us despite claiming “love is love” from people who don’t understand that for decades this community has felt hated by us; whether through sins of omission — not speaking up about horrid laws and a culture that permits the persecution of members of that community — or because our teaching about sexuality was used to prop those laws and culture up and to demonise these neighbours as an ‘other’ more broken than your average Aussie. I read one conservative commentator this week who continues to insist on calling homosexuals ‘sodomites’… Here’s what Ezekiel says was at the heart of Sodom’s sin

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” — Ezekiel 16:49-50

At the moment this sounds more like the perception of ‘brand Christian’ in Australia than anyone who might oppose us. The sort of Christianity that sees us playing the victim rather than caring for victims.

I read a piece that claims ‘the hate campaign begins as #lovewins’… an utterly abominable and self centred misreading of history. Hate against the LGBTIQ+ community has been happening for years; this was, for them, a campaign to eradicate hate… hate that WE HAVE PERPETRATED.

“Let to be known that on the December 7, 2017 – the day in Australian Parliamentary history when “love won” – the hate campaign truly began. Yesterday, supporters of same-sex marriage took to Twitter to celebrate by tweeting, “Eat sh-t Lyle.” A reference to Lyle Shelton, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby.”

What utter trollop. The hate has been going on for years; this date might be the moment we start to feel it institutionally (from the government and culture), whereas, in the past, these institutions were acting in our interest.

Do we not understand that the LGBTIQ+ community has legitimate claims here; that they’ve been oppressed and hated — not just by Christians, but we weren’t exactly standing against it — and that they themselves saw marriage equality as one step in a long line of steps towards de-systematising this hatred. We might agree or disagree with this step, this solution, or other steps — but I don’t think we can, in the face of the evidence, disagree with the foundational premise.

LGBTIQ+ campaigners can legitimately claim to be campaigning against systemic hate even if we don’t agree with their means. Safe Schools is an anti-bullying campaign because LGBTIQ+ kids get bullied for being different. I know. I was, by omission, part of this in my public school. Safe Schools might adopt a means to achieve this end that I don’t love — I’m not sold on the queer/marxist agenda of eradicating any difference between people being the solution to this oppression.  We spent the SSM campaign trying to make it about Safe Schools and our opposition to it. We spent the campaign APPARENTLY ADVOCATING AGAINST AN ANTI-BULLYING CAMPAIGN.

You know what that makes us look like?

BULLIES.

Bullies who are attached to an institution that has systemically ABUSED CHILDREN and COVERED UP THAT ABUSE.

Where’s our better option? Where’s an anti-bullying program from Christians that does the job better than Safe Schools? Put up or shut up.

I read a piece, celebrated by Christian conservatives on social media, that declared the ‘Rainbow-haters have declared war on no voters’...

And their fears are already being realised.

Within a day of the marriage bill being passed, an academic from the University of Technology Sydney was describing it as a “mandate to deliver… LGBTQI+-inclusive sexuality education” aka “Safe Schools” queer theory. And there was an online petition to strip tax-free charitable status from Shelton’s ACL.

As we saw overseas, LGBTQI vigilantes don’t stop when same-sex marriage becomes law. They want to hound into submission every last dissenter.

You know, ‘rainbow haters’ used to be a bit different. We’re talking about a community, who when they lived in Nazi Germany, we marked with pink triangles and exterminated… literally ‘hounded into submission’ and treated as dissenters… that’s some evocative imagery right there. We’re talking about that happening less than 70 years ago. On a whim I googled ‘set dog on gay man’ and was distressed but unsurprised to find this story about a POLICE OFFICER allegedly doing just that in England in 2016. Stories from other countries are apparently fair game in this space — we’re yet to have an Australian baker before the courts… Here in Australia we’re talking about a community who, for many years, could be murdered in Queensland and have that charge downgraded to manslaughter because of ‘gay panic’ — the idea that a gay person might be not hitting you but hitting on you was reason for self defence. We’re talking about a community who face a greater than average risk of suicide and a bunch of other mental health stuff. A community for whom an SBS feature on gay hate crimes reported:

“NSW now has a task force, Operation Parrabell, reviewing 88 deaths including 30 unsolved cases from the 1970s to the early 2000s as potential gay-hate murders, most of which weren’t treated as such at the time. Those 88 deaths are the worst of the tragedies.”

I read a piece that says this isn’t a ‘slippery slope’ but a precipice (it at least had the poetry of a CS Lewis analogy and a God who blows us back from over the edge). Look. Let’s talk about the slippery slope thing. The way the no campaign operated turned the postal survey into a postal survey on the rest of the agenda. It passed with a massive majority. The way to avoid things being a slippery slope, when people have a destination they are working towards, is to treat the pathway there as steps — and to offer a better pathway to a better destination at key junctions along the journey. Not to stand at the top and yell that it’s a long way down once you start. This has the added benefit of being more closely tied to reality where even those with a radical agenda see the process as involving steps, and same sex marriage being not the first, but part of a continuum (repealing and changing other laws that allowed violence against that community were also a step). Of course these steps build towards a destination and create a momentum that is harder to turn once you’re moving, but perhaps for the LGBTIQ+ activists it doesn’t feel like a slippery slope, but a long, uphill battle to push against the weight of systemic injustice and a culture of antipathy that has, at times, been fuelled by even the most well-meaning, loving, members of the church (not just those who proof text their hatred from Leviticus).

Let me be clear. It’s not hatred to disagree with somebody; I do believe that same sex sexual activity is sinful, much as I believe that watching porn is sinful, or sex outside of marriage is sinful, or selfish heterosexual sex in marriage is sinful.

And let me be clear. There are some people on the ‘yes’ side who hate Christians. I guess I’m just struggling to see why they don’t ALL hate Christians.

It’s Christianity that brings the ‘golden rule’ of treat others as you would have them treat you, a command to love your neighbours as you love yourself, and a crucified king to show you what sacrificial love for the ‘other’ looks like. This is the Christian ethic. The wisdom of the world is ‘do unto others’ what they have done for you; and ‘an eye for an eye’…

Let me be absolutely clear — I believe a better path for gay equality is found in Jesus. In finding your identity in him not in your sexual attraction; and letting him shape how you live. I believe the image of God, renovated in Jesus so that we live as ‘the image of Jesus’ in the world is a better source of dignity and equality. I believe we do have better and more imaginative things to offer in the realm of gay rights than legal or symbolic equality, though not lesser things. I also believe we’re not going to be heard on any of this until we deal with the baggage and the perception it has created of wielding power in our own interests for too long. We’ve been too caught up in the institutions of the state to the point that we can’t help but be accused of being complicit in injustices perpetrated by the state. We’ve also been infected by this love for power in a way that has stopped us calling sin sin, and led us to cover up oppression rather than give up power.

We’re reaping the cost, not just of the campaign, but of decades of institutional and community memory of our position on this issue.

You can doubt this reality all you want; but here’s three things to consider.

  1. The testimony of celibate (or straight married) same sex attracted brothers and sisters in Christ supports this narrative.
  2. The testimonies of real people in these stories supports this narrative; and you could corroborate this by asking your LGBTQI+ friends.
  3. Perception is reality. Even if these things aren’t true; this is the landscape on which the campaign for LGBTQI+ equality is being fought and changes established.

In the eyes of the watching world we are an oppressor and we’re now behaving exactly like a bully or abuser when they get caught out — projecting. Making this all ‘their problem’. It’s awful.

STOP IT.

We were tone deaf in the marriage debate about the ‘rights’ side of the argument and the importance of equality (and symbolism for establishing that equality) which meant our symbolic olive branches never appeased (civil unions anybody?). We’re becoming even more tone deaf as we operate as sore losers when society still perceives us as the powerful (and abusive) oppressors.

What does it look like for us to repent in dust and ashes. That’s what we should be doing. Not donning the war paint.

10 Lessons the church could hope-fully learn from the same sex marriage fight

It’s fair to say the leaders of politically conservative Christianity here in Australia have been soundly defeated this week. We were told that the best way to secure religious freedom was to fight robustly against same sex marriage (even to make the fight against same sex marriage a fight against religious freedom) and it turns out, at least this week, that this was a terrible strategy. If these leaders led in a secular environment where results matter then they should be lining up for new employment tomorrow… but Christians don’t operate this way; we learn from mistakes, we grow, and we forgive… we focus on character or virtue (means) rather than results (ends) at least when we’re at our best.

Now. Unlike many things I’ve read this week I remain hopeful about the future of Christianity in Australia; and even about our religious freedoms, though I do think there are significant challenges that would require us to learn big lessons from the last few years.

Now. Before we go on down the path of thinking ‘here’s a political (or theological) liberal telling conservatives to suck lemons’ or whatever; I reckon I’m still a conservative theologically, and I struggle to pin myself down politically; the best articulation I’ve found of my dilemma politically is one from a Christian in the US, despairing about the evangelical church throwing its lot in with Donald Trump and arguing for a different conservative political vision.

I wrote a short piece for Eternity’s latest print edition as a bit of a post-mortem of the postal survey; some of the points here are duplicated ideas from there.

 

1. Hope is found in the Cross of Jesus. Political hope is found in a politics of the Cross.

Politics is not restricted to the corridors of power (or even to power).

Elections are now won or lost at the grass roots; social media is all the rage. Politics is ultimately about people. There was a clear sense that the No campaign understood this (I’ve never been urged to doorknock by church and mission agencies so much in my life). But what we’re missing is that there’s actually more to shaping our shared life together than the law and the courts. There’s a politics of institution building apart from the government; of faithful presence in our communities; of loving those at the margins who we might sit across from in the power struggles that we’ve mostly missed.

There’s a whole element of our engagement with politics missing; we’ve outsourced the professional stuff so that there are only a handful of MPs who grasp how religious faith operates, and we’re too focused on other concerns to join the rank and file of party membership to start civil conversations and disagreeing well at a local level; we’re also too enamoured by the idea that political change happens top down rather than from the community up; yesterday’s decision was the government catching up with the will of the people, not shaping it. If we want to be effective we might practice a different shaping of people’s vision of the good life for our nation by doing grass roots politics differently; it might be more holding barbecues than doorknocking. It’s too easy to outsource our politics to denominational leaders and professional lobby groups (and then to rely on those politicians of faith to get the job done when all else has been lost).

Here’s James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World; it’s worth slogging through this because of his diagnosis of modern life, and what he says about public life, public space, and politics without actually giving a way forward.

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state. Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them…

Taken to an extreme, identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology, that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad. This is the face of identity politics… Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political… It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant — and for some the only adequate — expression of our collective life. In this turn, we have come to ascribe impossibly high expectations to politics and the political process…

This turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues.

Imagine if we took up our cross, and let that shape our politics. If it wasn’t about winning but about following the example of Jesus whose very public faith was an act of publicly being put to death by those wielding political power; but ironically, it was at this point that he was claiming the crown and the throne of the kingdom of heaven. Imagine if we saw building that kingdom and having it accommodated in our nation as our public, political, priority.

2. Hope is found in a secular, pluralistic, politics of generous compromise

We’ve created the rod for our own back by playing politics as a zero sum game.

A zero sum game is a game where there is one winner and one loser; which is how a debate framed around securing a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote operates. Imagine if we’d sought to be peacemakers. The people now asking for religious freedoms are (largely) the same people who campaigned against the freedom for same sex couples to describe their relationships according to conscience and deeply held convictions about the world. As soon as this issue became about winners and losers we Christians were going to lose; and because we aimed to ‘win’ (to have our will and God’s design shape the nation’s laws), there is nothing for us now that we’ve lost. We’re left relying on the goodwill of the victors, and just as we weren’t interested in protecting their freedoms, en masse, they’re seemingly not particularly inclined to protect ours.

It might be too late to play ‘what if’ here; but what if we’d recognised the goodness of religious freedom for a shared life in our diverse community and taken the first step towards compromise. For too many Christians compromise is a dirty word; but we’re talking about how non-Christians live, so compromises might actually be steps towards virtue rather than away from it; and we might view compromise as a dirty word and lose that simply by playing power-politics or seeking to win via worldly power we’re already compromised.

This is probably the best point to address this — but one thing I hope never to see again is us embracing populism on the off chance it will deliver the best result for us; rather than working towards the best result for the unpopular in order for them to live well in community with those who disagree with their lifestyle. It’s pretty clear we’re not the popular ones any more but this would be a pragmatic reason to jump; the virtuous reason is that it’s just the right thing to do in a system of government built on the belief that all people are made in the image of God and so of equal value in a society. Populism is a form of power politics; when we play power politics for our own interest, or against the interest of a marginalised group in society, we undermine the message of the Gospel; that God’s power is present in weakness — the cross, not the sword.

3. Hope is found in a public faith

We’ve got a problem with the secular/sacred divide and how it operates and is understood here in Australia; it cuts both ways. Acknowledging that everything is sacred for everybody is more theologically honest (and has greater explanatory power).

Now. I’m not totally freaked out by the religious freedom stuff from this week — the failed amendments — the way same sex marriage has been introduced has been via the amending of existing acts (especially The Marriage Act); the Smith bill, the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, which sought to protect religious freedom while changing the definition of marriage, included amendments to an existing framework which explicitly deals with clergy in their function as celebrants.

But the discussion around the issue has been revealing. One way it has been revealing is that it has exposed our inability to grapple with some of the basic expediencies of governing and that these grey areas will be used by people with agendas… had we listened better (see point 5) we wouldn’t (yet) be feeling like the sky is falling in; but I reckon as we do listen it becomes clear that there’ll be a problem when the government does set about dealing with religious freedom.

When Labor front-bencher Brendan O’Connor, speaking on Q&A after the result of the postal survey was announced, said “the religious freedoms and protections are contained within the bill” he was using this to dismiss the concerns of religious people that marriage re-definition has particular and direct religious freedom ramifications (beyond celebrants); Labor’s position (and that of the Greens, and members of the Liberal Party) seems to be that protecting clergy and protecting sacred space is enough. The Smith Bill says its objects are:

(a)  to allow civil celebrants to solemnise marriage, understood as the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life; and

(b)  to allow ministers of religion to solemnise marriage, respecting the doctrines, tenets and beliefs of their religion, the views of their religious community or their own religious beliefs; and

(c)  to allow equal access to marriage while protecting religious freedom in relation to marriage.

When it comes to protecting religious freedoms it is rightly focused on religious celebrants because those are the people explicitly included in and affected by changes to the original Marriage Act. The amendment does provide robust protection for religious celebrants, and also for “bodies established for religious purposes” who “may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services.” The act protects sacred people and sacred space; and if these were the limits of religious life then the act does a fine job of achieving its end.

Only. There’s a problem.

One of our founding democractic principles; oft-cited in this debate is the ‘separation of church and state’ — how that is now understood, if James Davison Hunter is right about the current landscape, is that the state is responsible for the public life of a citizen, and religion is an entirely private matter. More; because Christians throughout the ages have bought into an anemic, Platonic (literally) vision of Christianity where belief is enough, and the salvation of the soul is the purpose of the Christian life, we’ve got rampant nominalism in Australia shaping our understanding of what Christianity is, and a thin Christianity being practiced within the church. We don’t just buy the secular/sacred divide. We sell it.

Until we’re a florist or a baker who doesn’t want to participate in a same sex marriage, or medical professional who doesn’t want to participate in abortion or euthanasia, or the myriad other ways the secular/sacred divide is demonstrably falsified in the throes of real life.

Here’s the problem.

There’s a certain secular agenda who want to keep religion private if it is going to exist at all… and a certain predisposition of religious people in Australia to live according to those rules anyway, coupled with a “secular” political strategy being adopted by Christian lobbyists and institutions (which further reinforces the perception that explicitly religious beliefs don’t belong in the political realm.

There’s another problem.

There’s no such thing as a place that isn’t sacred for Christians (or, as I’ll suggest, for anybody). It’s a noble act on the government’s part to consider space and how it is weaponised, and to seek to protect church property becoming a political battleground; but bizarrely, Jacqui Lambie, on a recent Q&A episode, nailed the problem with a scenario:

“You know, I had a bloke ring me back two weeks ago saying, “Jacqui, I want to know what my rights are right now because I only want to marry a man and wife in my garden.” And I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you out with that.” He’s now going to sit in limbo for months. What should he do? He has a freedom in this country. He has a right to say, “You know what? Because of my religious freedom…my religious beliefs, I cannot marry you in my backyard.” And this is what you are doing to people because you’re going out there, bull at a bloody gate, as politicians do, and yet they haven’t filled in the gaps. How long are these people going to have to go through more pain? They’ve lost. They’re feeling the pain. How much longer do they have to feel more pain?”

Is your backyard sacred space?

For Christians all space is sacred because there is no square millimetre that is not in reality created by God and under the Lordship of Jesus. But all public space is capable of being sacred for any of us; some space is more malleable and contested, so, for example, we rent a space used by the Opera to run church on Sundays.

The thing is it’s not just that there is no secular/sacred divide for Christians, there is no secular sacred divide for anyone; and we’d have a much richer pluralism if we just acknowledged that all public space is “sacred” and contested; and that governments either have to pick what the majority believes is right or accommodate different parties in the contest, or both. We can’t pretend the ‘secular’ methodology is neutral if it excludes the sacred reality of mundane life. We don’t expect others to check their beliefs at the door and make a public/private distinction in this way — especially the non-religious — and this is why we should have approached changing the Marriage act as a chance to offer religious freedom to others; not as a contest about the ontological definition of marriage (which is inevitably shaped by one’s sacred sense of how life works), or even the ‘common good’ without understanding all goods as ‘secular and sacred’. We saw evidence in the lead up to the legislation changing (both before and during the postal survey) that the change was being pursued with a religious fervour (often with religious language), where ‘heretics’ were anathematised (Coopers Light anybody), and where ‘priestly actors’ in the religion of sex and the free market made both public pronouncements (corporate advertising for a yes vote) and cleaned up their temple infrastructure (changing employee policies and in extreme cases, dismissing staff). These are pretty much the same freedoms the church is asking for as ‘sacred acts’ being conducted by actors who hold to a different sacred view.

David Foster Wallace once said “everybody worships”; and elsewhere (in Infinite Jest) that worship is what you would lay down your life for, or what you love ultimately. He also said that the term ‘fanatic’ comes from ‘worshipper at a temple’ and that we all have a temple; we just have to choose it carefully. He’s right. We all get our identity from somewhere —ultimately from what we worship — and if that is now wrapped up with politics (and political ideology) then everybody is basically operating with no separation between church and state… everybody but us Christians. This is what Romans 1 teaches too; as part of the theology of the Bible that starts with us being made as the living idols (images) of the living God, who, in worshipping other things, start to represent/be the image of those gods. There’s no secular/sacred divide because worship is enacted love (and belief) and shapes who we are.

We’ve got a problem. The secular world we live in believes faith is private and politics is public. And so do most Christians, most of the time. We need to recapture the idea that our faith is public; which means our faith is also inherently political.

 

4. Hope is found in listening better

I think this one operates on a few levels; one, we could have listened to the voices and desires of others better so as to understand them, two, we could’ve listened to the decision makers better about how they understood exactly what is and isn’t on the table in this process, and three, I personally think we could’ve listened to God better (and his explanation for departures from his design for life, and what the way back is (the Spirit via the Gospel (1 Corinthians 1-2, Romans 1, Romans 8).

As evidence for the first point, I sat in a room of Presbyterian ministers from around the country who specifically resolved to participate in the Coalition for Marriage, and resolved (minuted) against being on the record as seeking to understand the concerns of the LGBTI community. The thing about minutes isn’t just that they’re public and so can be appealed to to account for how we ended up where we got; they’re also public and so help shape how we act. This was shaping we didn’t believe we needed, apparently, but the Coalition for Marriage campaign lacked both grace (in tone and content) and understanding. We just didn’t care about the other; we cared about truth and winning.

As for the second point; in seeking to make the issue being discussed the secondary impact without actually demonstrating a link between same sex marriage and safe schools (already taught in schools) or same sex marriage and same sex parenting (which already happens in our community), and about religious freedom, we also failed to listen to the way the postal survey was being framed and being understood. We assumed we were in a position to shape the form of the debate; or hosts of the table, and not just participants simply by shouting over the top of the host (the parliamentarians) and the other guests (the yes campaign) who mostly agreed on what was being discussed.

The view of the government was that the postal survey was specifically about whether or not the definition of marriage should change; it was a discussion about what marriage is according to the law of Australia so when we made it about all these other things we were understood not to be listening. It’s still possible we aren’t listening on the religious freedom front when we’ve made it all about the secondary issues and then pinned our hope on amendments to a bill about marriage law. The government has promised a more widespread review on religious freedom. Perhaps that’s where our energy should be, post-postal survey (though I wonder if our energy is better spent showing how religious freedom is a good thing for our society by exercising it in how we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… how we live and proclaim the kingdom of God.

Here’s the attorney general, George Brandis, on the post-postal survey episode of Q&A in November:

“What the Prime Minister and I, as two of the Government’s principal advocates for the Yes vote, have always said is that there is no inconsistency whatsoever between recognising the right of same-sex couples to marry, which this prime minister has worked for in a way that no other Australian prime minister has ever done, and at the same time respecting traditional religious freedoms.”

Now. A little back and forth on that same question reveals the problem with secular/sacred thinking as it operates in our community and how these two issues are actually linked, and that the failure to listen goes both ways… but we don’t compound not being heard well by not listening well ourselves. Here’s a question that assumes no secular sacred divide. The bold bits are telling.

GEOFFREY JONES
My question is to Brendan O’Connor. Regarding the recent plebiscite result, the diverse Western Sydney will want strong conscience provisions when the Marriage Act is changed. Muslim bakers from Bankstown will want the right to opt out of baking cakes for gay weddings, and Maronite families from Punchbowl will want the freedom to establish schools that teach the Maronite ethos, and Christian Samoan preachers won’t want to be dragged before any hate speech tribunals. Can you see why promises to protect these people’s rights at a later unspecified date might sound insincere?

TONY JONES
OK, we’ll go to Brendan O’Connor first, and we’ll hear from Janet as well.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR
Clearly, there are protections afforded to religious institutions insofar as who they choose to marry. That’s contained within the Dean Smith bill. However, it’s also critical to ensure that we do not go backwards when it comes to anti-discrimination laws. I mean, it would be absurd, offensive and ironic that we would find ourselves going backwards in discriminating against same-sex couples in order to reintroduce and indeed qualify anti-discrimination laws that exist already in this country. So, I don’t accept the proposition that religious pastors or religious preachers or others who choose to marry only heterosexual couples are discriminated against insofar as the bill that’s been proposed by Senator Smith. And for that reason, I think… And that’s the thing I’m worried about – that people will attempt to create a scare campaign to misrepresent the actual bill that’s before the Parliament, which we’ve been debating, I might add, certainly in the case of the House of Representatives, for over 40 hours. It wasn’t like we haven’t thought these things through. And there’s been hundreds and hundreds of hours, of course, that has led to the outcome of that bill. And it’s one of the very few decisions… Whilst we didn’t support the survey and we’ve said it was an expensive waste of time, I have to say the result of the survey certainly endorsed the view that overwhelmingly Australians want to see the end of discrimination against same-sex couples, and their right to marry should be enshrined in law. And I don’t think it should be…

Let’s pause for a second; for Labor’s Brendan O’Connor, religious freedoms are about pastors and institutions, but what is at stake here is framed by the limits of the conversation and the bill… who gets married in ‘sacred’ spaces by ‘sacred’ people, (not how marriage is understood, recognised and practiced in public — which was at the heart of the question).

Green senator Janet Rice is in same sex relationship and has been a passionate advocate for marriage equality. She was also on the Q&A panel, and here was her response to that same question.

 

“Yes, I mean, Geoffrey, you’ve got some serious concerns, but I think largely they are unfounded, because religious organisations and ministers will continue to have the right to choose who they marry. And nobody is going to be forced to marry… If you’re a church or another religious institution, you’re not going to be forced to marry people that you don’t want to marry.”

Again, for her, religious freedom concerns are all about sacred people and spaces, which are protected, but she doesn’t actually listen to the question either to see how the sacred extends beyond the question of who someone marries to how we recognise and practice marriage (and the recognition of marriage) in public. But for these two politicians that issue isn’t on the table even if it was the heart of Geoffrey’s question (and the no campaign).

Here’s how George Brandis responded to this same question:

“… let’s be very plain about this. What the Australian people voted for overwhelmingly last week was a very simple proposition – should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry? That was the question that was put to them and it was the only question that was put to them.”

There’s a really interesting back and forth in this discussion in that Q&A transcript that I think gel with what I’ve said above (and a great contribution from broadcaster Stephen O’Doherty who gets it), and George Brandis who says these issues (marriage and freedom) are related but not the same so shouldn’t be dealt with at the same time… But here’s something that should give us hope, that parliamentarians are willing to do the hard work of figuring out religious freedom; just not at the same time as they redefine marriage, here’s Labor’s Brendan O’Connor:

“It’s a debate we should have separate to the bill that’s before the Parliament in a couple of weeks. And it should be something we can look at in the New Year, because we should be focusing on the question of enacting marriage equality.”

By getting angsty about the failure for amendments to be carried when the vast majority of participants understood the amendments as being about a totally separate issue, we’ve failed to listen. There is still hope. It’s always been awkward to me that the same people who say that the government should uphold Christian goods as communal goods are also the most cynical about the likelihood that they might eventually do that. It’s that awkward part of reformed theology where we paradoxically believe that all people are broken by sin, but also that the government will a mechanism for the provision of common grace.

By trying to make this conversation about something else we haven’t been great participants in the dialogue; but by not listening to these genuine concerns (and not understanding the public nature of faith) this hasn’t been a particularly civil, generous, or pluralistic dialogue. The right response to that is for us to practice the virtue of civic dialogue, built on listening well, not simply to speak without seeking to understand.

5. Hope is found in the imagination; in imagining and publicly striving for the goodness, truth, and beauty of the kingdom of God.

Imagine a politics shaped by the imagination; and that sought to present the goodness, truth, and beauty of life in the kingdom of God, where Christians truly saw themselves as ambassadors for Jesus, and happily proclaimed his rule (and relevance) for life in Australia.

What if we’d approached this debate as ambassadors for Jesus; as an opportunity to present the compelling vision of a marriage shaped by the Gospel that so many of us are motivated by in our own public and private lives?

Or, to flog something from Wesley Hill who flogged it from someone else:

“What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage… until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.”

What if we’d told stories about the goodness of male/female marriage for kids and communities, and stories of same sex attracted Christians who chose Jesus over the pursuit of marriage? We’d score less political points (and results), but we’d be cultivating virtue. And politics doesn’t have to be a results game; not in an eternal perspective. If Jesus played the results game Caesar would have faced a flaming sword and an army of angels, instead, Jesus faced humiliating death on the cross.

Our entire political paradigm is about winning results, not persuading people. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says since we know what good it is to follow Jesus, to be new creations, to ‘fear the Lord, “we try to persuade others”… that we do this as new creations — a taste of God’s eternal kingdom — and as new creations we are ambassadors for Jesus. This changes our approach to public life, and politics, because it changes the win.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.  — 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

6. Hope is found in stories.

Imagine if we’d told better stories; rather than campaigning on fear, loathing, and logic. Their stories trumped our facts.

Being more imaginative and aiming at the imagination would mean a shift from ‘reason’ to ‘reason and emotion’ and from ‘facts’ to ‘true stories’…

Have you been watching the speeches in parliament this last week? The ones in favour of changing the act? They’ve almost universally been stories of people whose lives will be improved by this decision — or from parents of same sex attracted children who wish to marry, or from a mother whose son tragically took his own life. These stories resonate because they speak to our hearts; to our emotions and desires. They continue the trajectory established by the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘No’ campaign, on the other hand, traded on facts and logic, and when it did veer into emotions, on fear rather than joy; and by trading on fear (and stoking fear) around the issue of a marginalised people group who feel ostracised from the mainstream, the no campaign added a dash of loathing.

This was bad marketing and a product of a bad anthropology; people aren’t thinking things, or computers, or rational decision makers. We are storied creatures; virtue is cultivated by the participation in a community that is deliberately living out a story (see Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue); the Bible is a story not just a collection of facts… God is a story teller who both in the Bible, and in history, orchestrated the story of the universe to centre on Jesus. But when it came to politics we played the game like we were addressing modernist, 1950s Australia, and so, obscured the story we should be on about — the one that does answer the same desires for love, intimacy, commitment and being known that the yes campaign was promising marriage would deliver on.

7. Hope is found in adorning the Gospel and seeking to win the person, not the political point

Imagine if we adorned the Gospel with our religion such that it won goodwill from those who would most naturally be opposed to us. If that was the win (the adorning the Gospel bit) and the desired outcome wasn’t the zero sum political win, but winning the person.

This one flows from the last. Imagine if we did this ambassador thing, but went to those who think of us as enemies, and those who are marginalised, oppressed, and downtrodden by public life (not just politicians)?

Playing to win the political argument didn’t win people to Jesus; if the conversations I have with people are anything to go by, these conversations turned people away from Jesus.

I’ve written too much already, so these last three can stand without explanation for now.

8. Hope is found in the rejection of cynicism.

Imagine if we exchanged cynicism for hope; we might get taken advantage of, but we’d lose well. Nothing kills hope faster than habitual cynicism, even if real life seems like something we should be cynical about. Real life is life where every morning is one morning closer to the return of Jesus and heaven and earth merging together (Revelation 21-22). Cynicism is for schmucks. Being hopeful is, itself, a virtue.

9. Hope is found in prayer and through complexity.

Governing isn’t easy. Nobody who believes in any ideology sets out to compromise; and sin and the cursed frustration of life and death in a living and dying planet is difficult to navigate. That’s why the Bible makes such a big deal of wisdom as a virtue. Imagine if we listened to and assumed the best of our politicians who are doing difficult work; and were known for prayerfully carrying the cost of some of that complexity. The Bible also says we should pray for those in government.

10. Hope is found in the pursuit of virtue, not the securing of self interest

Imagine if we were really more interested in virtue than outcomes. For Christians virtue formation comes from living in our story — a story of God being creator and redeemer (and judge). A story that has an ending that we already know, secured through a means (the cross) that brings a certain sort of character formation that happens through politics. Imagine if that meant we could lose well and not be seen to be scrambling to secure our own interests. Imagine if instead of pushing for religious freedom for ourselves, we’d been big on freedom for communities to form around the pursuit of virtue around a story; confident that as we live in one of those communities in public that would be persuasive and see God’s kingdom grow, and more virtue formed… Imagine if instead of seeing religious freedom as an ends, we used the freedom we have as a means to a different ends… seeking to persuade people to be reconciled to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A (developing) matrix exploring how your understanding of the Gospel shapes your ‘Christian’ politics and ethics

Here’s a little thing I’ve been working on for a while. It’s a tad reductionist, but I’m attempting to describe certain streams and assumptions of Christianity that seem to integrate behind different ways that Christians engage with politics/the world. I suspect most people aren’t thoroughly consistent and often hover between two adjacent columns (depending on the ‘row’). There’s also a sort of optimism/hope to pessimism/despair spectrum at play for people in each row/column too, so it’s never quite so simple. I’m not wedded to much in this, I’m really trying to tease out how we integrate these bits and pieces into a coherent ‘political’ and ‘ethical’ approach to life.

Some of these boxes still need fleshing out, this is a living attempt to describe something that I’m happy to edit based on suggestions.

Ethical systems are hard to pin down too, I wanted to do them as a row, because ultimately I’m interested in how each column approaches ethics (I’d say the ‘centre’ columns are typically more interested in virtue/character ethics while the outer columns bend towards consequentialism; and the right two columns are typically into deontology tending towards divine command theory on the hard right. When it comes to a particular ethical issue — or which issues we pick as important — like how we approach sex, or education or money/career, these, I think, work as a sort of ‘matrix’ for decision making (both in terms of how we come to a position and the position we come to). I’m not sure ‘approach to sex and sexuality’ for example is a row, but these rows and columns would determine how somebody arrives at a position/predict the position a person arrives at.

It’s also possible to get some pretty strange combinations of, for example, anthropology and eschatology, that make this sort of exercise fall apart; so, for example, it’s possible to have an essentially Catholic anthropology (which would fit the centre left), and a post-millenial ‘we’re building the kingdom now’ eschatology (not limited to the church) and end up with the politics of the hard right. If you’re a Catholic pre-millenial (expecting tribulation and the ultimate defeat of evil) you end up as the Third Eagle of the Apocalypse. But I suspect most people are consistent at least in how their politics flow from their convictions about God, Jesus, and the Gospel.

 

Hard Left Centre Left Centre Right Hard Right
Summary of the Gospel. Liberation of the world from worldly oppressors (Luke 4). Jesus is God’s king, promised in the Old Testament, who is now establishing a kingdom. Jesus is the saviour
who paid the penalty for my sin.
Jesus is the judge of the world who will punish the unrighteous.
Understanding of human nature/anthropology Made in the image of God; deformed but mostly by the sins of the powerful and by sinful oppression that leave us with little choice. Optimistic humanism (we can overcome these problems), pessimistic about institutions/power. Made in the image of God. Broken by sin. Optimistic about human institutions when built around a vision of God’s kingdom. People outside the church are capable of participating in these institutions (big on common grace). Made in the image of God, though sin has damaged our ability to be like God, know God or know true things about God’s word. The state is provided by God to provide common grace by restraining evil, but hope for the world is found through people recognising their sin and their need for a saviour. Bit on total depravity (in the sense that all human actions are tainted by sinful hearts). Total depravity has become absolute depravity. The world is hostile — in enmity with God — and will hate us for being faithful (which we are only able to achieve through the Spirit, having been convicted by being confronted with God’s law and our utter brokenness and inherent worthlessness).
Understanding of repentance. Fight oppressors (by) following the example of Jesus. There are streams of this ‘fight’ that embrace non-violence, but other liberation theology is prepared to fight fire with fire. The ongoing turning of authority over your life to Jesus, entering his kingdom by faith in his victorious death. Particular emphasis on non-violence, shalom, and the kingdom being embodied and something we participate in as we take up our cross daily. A decision to turn from sin, to Jesus, to be saved. By grace alone, through faith alone. Not by works or merit. Turn from sin and condemn it publicly and vocally. If you haven’t turned hard enough you’re probably not actually repentant.
Understanding of
discipleship.
Follow the example of Jesus, not necessarily because of any hope for salvation, but because his example is good and true. Sometimes at the expense of his teachings if they have been used to oppress. Follow the example of Jesus because he is king, and saviour. Freed by his victory to live confidently as part of his kingdom. Seek to establish ‘shalom’ in the world through alternative ‘kingdom’ living. Discipleship is training to help other people make a decision for Jesus (to answer their questions, and perhaps your own in the process). But it’s being saved that really matters.

Inasmuch as there is an emotional component to discipleship it emphasises cultivating love for God (eg Piper’s Christian hedonism).

There is a ‘secular’/’sacred’ divide because the ‘secular’ will not last — so the most valuable work for the Christian is Gospel proclamation.

Moral formation driven by the desire to mark yourself as God’s people by keeping God’s law.
Occasionally driven by fear.
Understanding of the Cross (in order of emphasis) 1. Victor (over oppressors and maybe if the Spiritual stuff is true, over sin and death)
2. Exemplar

At the Cross Jesus totally sided with the oppressed — and showed the darkness of human power and oppression — his non-violent protest to this oppressive force would ultimately be its undoing — its the church, not Caesar’s Rome, that still exists today. The church, following the example of Jesus, is the hope for the world as we follow his example in fighting oppression by taking up our cross to follow him. Our individual sins are almost a necessary evil, so long as we aren’t complicit in the oppression of others. And the people who establish categories of righteousness are typically the powerful elites who use this as a mechanism for control — both in the state, and the church, so we should rightly be suspicious of any attempts to coerce people to behave in a particular way; and God isn’t coercive or oppressive, so he wouldn’t do this to us either.

 1. Victor (over sin, death, and oppressors)
2. King
3. Exemplar
4. Penal substitution (Saviour)

Through his death, resurrection, and atonement Jesus defeats Satan, evil, sin, and death, and at the Cross he is enthroned as king — first on the cross, now seated on the throne in heaven where he rules his kingdom — the church — while it awaits his return to establish his kingdom totally. The church lives following his example, empowered the Spirit to live kingdom-shaped (and shaping) lives now, knowing that our sins have been forgiven as Jesus paid the price to secure our adoption.

1. Penal Substitution (Saviour)
2. Victor (over sin, death, and Satan)
3. Exemplar
4. King

Jesus, in his perfection, paid the penalty for the sins of the world, that whoever believes will have eternal life with him. His death snatched the lives of his people from the hands of Satan, and condemned him to defeat. We now follow his example in seeking and saving the lost, living out the great commission, which has a particular emphasis on helping people share in this forgiveness and the hope of new life.  The Spirit helps us answer questions, keeps us hanging on to our decision to follow Jesus, and helps us to live in obedience, to keep turning from sin, and living in a way that will help others make a decision to follow Jesus.

1. King.
2. Penal Substitution
3. Exemplar

Jesus is the perfectly righteous lawkeeper; the one who will return to judge with justice — separating sheep and goats, wheat and chaff — his right to judge was secured in the injustice of the cross, and in his divine right. He will judge us based on our obedience to divine law. We are all lawbreakers by nature — but his death frees us from slavery to sin to live as a righteous people.

Emphasis on individual v
systemic effects of sin.
Almost entirely ‘structural’; caricatures the ‘oppressor’ as those in power (views all institutional power as violence). Sees both the structural result of individual sin, and our culpability for our own sinfulness — not just sins we commit of our own free will, but how we benefit from systems that reinforce status quo power disparity and ‘privilege’.

Differ a bit on how optimistic to be about human institutions, power, and violence, from the anabaptistic approach of someone like Hauerwas to the reformed/faithful presence approach of Hunter, Smith, etc.

Emphasises individual sin — and, on the flip side — is less likely to hold individuals to account for sinful structures that they have not been explicitly responsible for.

Differentiates the self from the system (eg ‘I’m not Y and have no need for identity labels from the world, because I personally love X people and see them as made in the image of God.’

Less inclined to fight systemic injustice, and more interested in retrieval of Gospel outcomes (saved individuals) from broken institutions than reforming institutions themselves. These broken institutions, are of course, a product of broken individuals, and if these individuals follow Jesus the systemic change should follow.

The closer to the ‘centre’ a person is the more they are likely to see ‘faithful presence’ involving institutions as a useful strategy, the closer to the right a person in this column is the more likely they are to form ‘counter’ political institutions as a form of faithful presence.

Emphasises individual sin, but sees ‘sinful structures’ outside the kingdom as things to be avoided lest we be tainted or associated with evil; simply being connected to these worldly institutions is corrupting.

Likely to establish ‘Christian’ institutions for the benefit of other Christians (with relatively strong boundaries — ie Christian schools with doctrinal statements, home schooling, Christian businesses, Christian ‘arts’).

Sees love for neighbour and their ‘best’ life secured through legislation that minimises sin.

Interpretive lens Follow a trajectory of liberation and ongoing revelation (interpretive authority — ie ‘recognising trajectories’ and ‘oppression’/the oppressed — rests in the hands of the liberators responding to particular oppressors. Follows a trajectory of ‘kingdom’ either starting with Adam or Israel, and seeing Jesus as the ultimate king who brings a kingdom that dramatically reverses the patterns of worldly power and authority. Typically a Christocentric lens with a dash of liberation/emphasis on the oppressor being overthrown and God’s concern being for the vulnerable. Follows a thread of God dealing with sin and saving a people through promises, faith, sacrifice, and obedience; ultimately centred on Jesus as true priest, sacrifice, temple, and faithful law/covenant-keeping human. Follows a thread of ‘in/out’ people and groups; the ‘righteous’ in a legal/forensic sense and the reprobate. Probably with covenant or dispensation language thrown into the mix.
Eschatology It’s not certain Jesus was anything other than the best example of the kind of love we might hope for at our best, so his return isn’t necessarily on the cards, and if he does return it will be in a way that finally overthrows the oppressors, but in order to not be violent, everyone probably gets the peace he brings. Jesus will return as King in this world (merged with the heavens to make it new); and our bodily resurrection means that there is continuity and the kingdom we build now will carry over in some way into the new. Jesus will return and establish his kingdom; burning up all that is of this world. Jesus will return and finally defeat evil after some sort of tribulation/final battle, burning up all that is of this world in a refining fire.
Post-Christian strategies/political theologians of choice Post-Christianity is a strategy for Christians because the institutional church is an oppressor. Embrace progress; partner with a coalition of progressive groups sometimes at odds with other Christians.

Liberation theologians, you probably haven’t heard of them because they’re non-anglo.

Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens

Walter Brueggemann

Miroslav Volf

 

Scot McKnight

NT Wright

James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World,

Wilkinson and Joustra, How To Survive The Apocalypse

James K.A Smith’s Awaiting The King

Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option

Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order (though the centre left like him too).

I’d probably put Russell Moore, Albert Mohler and Carl Trueman in this box, and most of the Gospel Coalition’s stuff (whether Australian or American).

On the ‘right’ edge of the centre anything political/ethical is likely to be published in Australia by Matthias Media

John MacArthur
Douglas Wilson
Tracts about salvation and judgment.

27 ways to recapture, live, and tell our story

After yesterday’s post a friend zeroed in on the paragraph below, and asked for some really practical steps towards doing this.

“We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves.

I want to start with the disclaimer that I’m a rookie and I’m still figuring this stuff out… and this stuff is harder than it sounds because it does challenge plenty of stuff we modernist, literate, Christians have embraced. I’ve been reading/grappling with this, and what it looks like in our church communities as I try to serve one, so I’ve got some thoughts. I’m not alone, there are heaps of books on this, The Benedict Option is the most famous. I liked it (with some significant reservations). I’ve written a few things around this before like my theses about what a continued reformation would look like in Australia, some propositions and stories about a different way of doing stuff, our need to be more imaginative in our political engagement (and less secular), and some thoughts on how to respond to what the census reveals about the Australian soul/mission field.

These points below are a bit sequential and integrated. I struggle with making anything too concrete, because I think most of how we should live is a contextually driven application of principles. What a narrative approach looks like will be different in the university, and in the juvenile detention system. In order to stop this getting stupidly long I’ve mostly just gone with summaries of these ideas, that I’m happy to unpack (though many of them are either the subject of past posts, or of books that you should read).

I think the best books on this (or the ones that have shaped/are shaping my thinking, I’m not saying I agree with everything in these, just acknowledging their import in getting to these ideas) are:

  1. Alyssa Wilkinson and Robert Joustra’s How To Survive the Apocalypse
  2. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s Resident Aliens (and Hauerwas’ Community of Character)
  3. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue
  4. Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option
  5. John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism
  6. James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World
  7. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching
  8. John Stackhouse’s Making The Best Of It
  9. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality
  10. James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love (and his cultural liturgies series, though I’m only two chapters in to his latest).
  11. Andy Crouch’s Culture Making
  12. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem
  13. Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time

I’m currently reading Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that shape the Church for Mission; it’s fast climbing the list; it’s like an optimistic, outwards looking, Benedict Option (so is How To Survive The Apocalypse).

The abstract.

1. Teach people that narrative matters and is where we get our identity and our ethics from. There’s an irony that a post like this is so propositional in its delivery. Everybody lives a way of life (an ethic) derived from an understanding of where we’ve come from (an origin story) and where we’re going (an eschatology). These combine to give us a sense of who we are, and we make these decisions based around who is authoring and starring in the story, and we are clearly not entirely the author of our own stories because life always pre-exists us. Or, as Alisdair MacIntyre puts it:

“We enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our making. Each of us being a main character in his own drama plays subordinate parts in the dramas of others, and each drama constrains the others.”

“Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. He is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. But the key question for men is not about their own authorship; I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’

2. Have a sense of the Bible’s grand narrative in a way that shapes how we let God’s story shape our story; and preach that, and everything connected to that.

3. Understand that part of this narrative thing is seeing ourselves as embodied characters in the story being formed as we participate in it; and the connection between worship and story, and between our embodied lives and people being confronted with the story. So see practices as both formative and declarative. Live the story we preach.

4. Understand that this narrative is caught as much as taught; that knowledge is socialised before it is rationalised, so see church community as a community formed by a narrative as it lives that narrative and also as a plausibility structure for that narrative. Peter Berger who came up with ‘plausibility structures’ wasn’t just talking about the ‘worldview’ we have in our head that operates as a grid for us in assessing information to decide what is true, he points out that plausibility comes socially, in communities, through people living according to a truth in deliberate ways, who deliberately pass on that truth (like parents and schools do).

5. See (and train people to see) counter narratives for what they are; idolatrous stories built around deforming practices that have a certain compelling power that convince people because they address desires and emotions, rather than because they present rationally coherent accounts of reality. But this seeing also involves empathy and charity and seeking to recognise truth in these views that can be re-directed to its proper source (ala Paul in Athens), and recognise the true, created, desires that are finding a wrong ‘end’ in idolatry. Part of this is learning (and teaching people) to exegete places and cultures, not just Bible passages.

6. Embrace the good, true, and beautiful in order to appeal to our nature as storied creatures who are shaped by desire and storywhich means both being good participants in a culture (created by others — both ‘high’ and ‘pop’), and creators/curators of stories and artefacts. Show how the cross is both sublime and ridiculous and have that inform our aesthetic and our engagement with the world (and its stories); the Gospel both answers our human longings and subverts the way we seek to answer them for ourselves.

The concrete.

1. Preach the Gospel as a cosmic story of God redeeming and recreating the entire world and defeating evil (Satan, sin, and death) through King Jesus, where we have a part to play rather than a propositional thing about how we find personal forgiveness for our personal sins. Teach each part of the Bible as part of this story where we see the drama unfolding.

2. Pray lots more. God answers prayer. Prayer is a dynamic relationship with God. Prayer shapes the way we see and then live in the world… Jesus teaches us to pray ‘your kingdom come’ in the midst of his most pointed ethical teaching about what life in the kingdom looks like.

3. Re-calibrate maturity as something other than personal piety; instead see it in terms of participation in this story (virtue formation), which requires a commitment to knowing God. I spoke this week to somebody who was feeling down because their prayer and Bible reading time wasn’t going well, while they were simultaneously practicing incredible acts of grace and forgiveness. Maturity is about being Christlike in an embodied sense (and in our thinking and desires); not about knowing more about God (which is a particular Platonic thing, Plato taught that we are not really ’embodied’ but a soul waiting to escape the body so we should feed the soul, that’s become a pietistic default for Christians). Prayer is good (see above), but prayer disconnected from our embodied, creaturely life, as the sort of act of a soul with soulish desires is not an expression of maturity. 

4. Build church as a community with rhythms of life beyond Sunday gatherings. Practice gathering as a community in homes, but also as a faithful presence within the broader community. Build deliberate rhythms that involve people spending time together without a purpose beyond deepening relationships that are created by what we have in common (firstly Jesus, then things that bring us together like eating, life in a particular place/culture, interests). This community makes discipleship/formation possible (especially inasmuch as formation requires the rejection of other powerful stories, and that is easier in community (especially for those who have to make sacrifices directly connected to these prevailing stories — the single, the same sex attracted, the unemployed, etc).

See that simply being together (publicly and privately) as different people brought together by God, who love, serve, support and forgive one another, and love our neighbours together, is part of our formation as virtuous ‘image bearing characters’ but also as part of us being ambassadors. Be deliberate in explaining these actions to each other and connecting them to the story of God’s kingdom being revealed and built in Jesus (though without making the mistake of loving our neighbours as a bait and switch in order to sell them the Gospel).

5. Engage in cross shaped (sacrificial love) for our neighbours — especially the marginalised — as a community as both a formative practice (an act of worship), and part of our proclamation. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul talks about carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies, but when he does that he doesn’t say “I carry around the death of Jesus in my body’ but ‘we carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies’, in Romans 12 he says ‘offer yourselves (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular).

6. Value liturgy beyond Sundays (but including Sundays). Create liturgy (habitual practices) that are forms of worship (offering ourselves as living sacrifices) connected to our story (in view of God’s mercy) so that we don’t conform to the world’s stories (via its habits/patterns), but are transformed by the Spirit renewing our minds, through these practices. These liturgies have to be repeated so that they are disciplines that form us and counter the deforming power of other habits. Our low-evangelical culture’s low view of the sacraments has probably been to our detriment, because they do something formative to us because we are embodied people and are a clear way of participating in the Gospel in a way that reminds us who we are and gives us a more tangible sense of the presence of Jesus (who is there even when we’re not conducting the sacraments, the low church team gets some stuff right too).

7. Practice hospitality. With your church community and your friends and neighbours.

8. Encourage people to make and do things as expressions of our faith, but also just for creativity’s sake; be it as work (an embodied practice) or as creativity. Challenge our culture’s utilitarian view of work and creativity  — that suggests work or creativity only has value if it has a purpose connected to its narratives (that people are beings who need to be entertained, sexually stimulated, or economically productive). The utilitarian approach to Christians making things would be to only make things that directly and explicitly serve the purposes of the Gospel (so we get bad Christian art and music).

9. See our ‘privately owned’ institutional space as public space to be generously shared with others. Buy more space, ambitiously, make it available to people we agree with, generously, and as much as possible participate in face to face relationships with those people, trusting that when we act as hosts and are confident in our story there’ll be opportunities to explain why we’re generous and hospitable to outsiders, and how we understand ‘space’ (the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it).

10. Re-imagine our political engagement — re-introduce the imagination into how we speak of political issues. Tell stories about people rather than propositions. Embrace the ‘sacred’ rather than rationalising. Join parties and present faith-based positions into the formation of party policy/positions. Realise that our political horizon is not just about life as individuals (and liberty), but about opposing the ‘powers and principalities’ of this world — systems set up by sinful people to perpetuate sinful behaviour. See pursuing justice as a necessary outcome and expression of belief in a just judge; not a thing we do apart from the Gospel, but explicitly because of it.

11. Value virtue over utility. Our churches, across the evangelical world, are driven by pragmatism rather than emphasising character; and this expresses itself in our metrics, and in our politics. Virtue ethics are ethics created by a story. I’m preaching to my past self here, I even used to call myself a ‘Gospel utilitarian’; I repent.

12. Pursue formation, not just ‘conversion’ — we’ve made label ‘Christian’ a descriptor for somebody who ticks a particular belief box, and let our efforts be pointed towards achieving that ticked box, not to the harder work of character formation.

13. Accept, embrace even, the ‘grey’ that comes from our creatureliness. We’ve been far too black and white in our thinking and engaging; this manifests in plenty of ways but one of the most pernicious is that people think they need to believe a bunch of black and white truth claims before belonging in a community where they can explore and come to convictions over time. It also means we’ve settled for soundbite theology and limited attention spans rather than wrestling with complexity.

14. Practice rest, silence, and the making of space for all this stuff. We’re too busy and we’re overstimulated (while our attention spans are too short). Most of us. To put in the bodily effort required for this sort of transformation; this, coupled with a consumer culture where some people unplug from a church because we’re not being taught/spoonfed content for our growth/stimulation, or judge a community on its preaching/input (often compared to super preachers on the Internet), means we’re not building the depth of relationship with anybody that this stuff requires; we either don’t have the time in the short term (the diary), or over the long term (years) to build deep relationships. We’re impatient. Rest pushes back on this impatience.

15. Re-imagine work and ‘success’ for us and our kids. Spend less on education; work less; don’t take promotions. We’re economic captives to ‘Babylon’ even if we think we’re fighting against a ‘Babylonian’ sexual ethic.

16. Tell stories about people (and let people tell their stories).

 

The ambitious.

1. Value institutions and build them. Starting with the church. Institutions and systems can be corrupted by sin, but perhaps the best way to fight institutions that have been corrupted is actually through institutions (not just with a vacuum). The people who made the tower of Babel were making a bad institution, if people had chipped in to help Noah building the ark they would’ve been participating in a positive institution (much like the later temple builders)

2. Counter our nation’s/world’s idolatrous narratives with better stories; and better supporting infrastructure for participating in those stories. For example, instead of abandoning church schools, or using them as an expensive way to form ‘leaders’ who are contributors to an economic vision of the human, use them to fight ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering, math) education and its view of the person as an economic unit functioning in a machine with, perhaps, a liberal arts education focused on virtue formation. Our stories and institutions bring a sense of personhood by forming our understanding of what it means to be a person.

3. Foster entrepreneurial optimistic ‘disruptive’ engagement with the world, for example consider how participating in rejecting the narrative of profit, productivity, and the ‘market’ might result in start ups that are social enterprises with a social justice focus; subvert and disrupt that narrative using its own equipment,  and encourage Christians to create businesses aimed at expressing things that are true about our convictions. Make those expressions overt, but aim them at the common good, not self interest.

4. Re-imagine faith and work. The workplace isn’t just a mission field where we can convince colleagues of the truths of the Gospel, but a field in which we can live our convictions that bodily work matters, that death is the enemy, that our bodies will be raised, and that God has a particular concern for (and uses) the weak and the marginalised against the powerful and the oppressor. Choose vocations (or create businesses) that are deliberate expressions of something true about God’s world that allow us to see work more directly as storied, without devaluing the ordinary work of serving others with the gifts God has given us, or according to the needs of our society (ala Luther); don’t explicitly or implicitly prioritise full time ‘Gospel ministry’ as the only real Gospel ministry.

5. Rediscover an aesthetic connected to our story and use it in creating art and architecture; think about how our story might shape our buildings and spaces and so shape our practices (what does it mean that our story is about ‘light and life’ when many stories in our world are about ‘darkness and death’, how might a well lit auditorium (or lounge room) full of plants, colour, and movement reinforce this truth, where a dark and uncomfortable room where we all sit still and stare at screens might reinforce counter-formative practices). Make ‘artefacts’ that express this aesthetic in a way that pushes back against the darkness.

Over to you. What are your ideas?

Yeah, the government doesn’t understand the secular/sacred divide or public faith… but that’s on us.

Did you hear the one about the government that didn’t build religious freedom legislation into its amendment to the Marriage Act?

I did. I can’t stop hearing about it.

If you follow the Christian blogosphere in Australia you’ll be seeing plenty of posts following the parliamentary debate in the senate overnight; a debate passing the changes to the Marriage Act that the Aussie people called for via the clunky mechanism of the postal survey. The conservative Liberal/National Coalition passing this legislation, rather than a progressive Labor/Greens alliance was a great silver lining for Christians who believe in traditional marriage; these guys, ‘our people,’ understand that religious freedoms are important…

Only…

There’s a problem. The government didn’t bring in religious freedom protections, via amendments, in the bill it put forward as a result of the postal survey.

Two problems.

One is that the government has always said it will deal with religious freedoms separate to the actual act so these rejected amendments were all political grandstanding from a section of the Coalition who are trying to undermine Turnbull’s leadership; and all these bloggers are adding fuel to that fire. We’re pawns in someone else’s political game, when, as I’ll argue, we should be playing our own.

There’s also a problem with how our government and our nation understand the phrase religious freedom.

Bizarrely the conversation around religious freedoms has largely been about the freedom of Christians to define terms for ourselves (and for other theists from classic organised religions), rather than it being a two way street figuring out how different communities built on different ideals can live together in a pluralist context. This has just come across as us wanting to protect our privilege to hate and discriminate; which isn’t what I necessarily want brand Christian to stand for. It’ll continue to do this the more we bang the ‘victim’ drum in this debate; especially when the Aussie populace (perhaps rightly in some of these cases) believe we’ve voted to end a form of systemic inequality or oppression; to strike a blow against the persecution of minority groups; and to confer full human rights (and thus human dignity) on a community within our nation.

More bizarrely the conversation around religious freedom has been around the freedom not to participate in free common space (like public education, and especially sex ed classes), and to protect Christians wanting to operate businesses catering to the public around the wedding industry (florists and bakers). I feel like we want to have our cake and eat it too on this front; Christians decried corporate Australia jumping on board the same sex marriage bandwagon and essentially discriminating against Christians in their hiring practices, which surely is an expression of the religious freedom of a society that worships sex to hire and participate in public life accordingly, though it costs us Christians; but at the same time want Christian business people to be able to act according to religious beliefs without it costing them. It seems we just want the laws of the land to revolve around what is good for us; not what works for all of us. If we want bakers to be free to sell cakes to whoever they want, and schools to be able to hire Christian janitors, then it seems to me we should be happy to allow Qantas to bring in special marriage equality rings, and tennis organisations to rename their arenas…

Perhaps most bizarrely though, the conversation around religious freedom has been around the rights of church celebrants to not marry people (a right we already have under the Marriage Act, where we can refuse to marry anybody we want, without reason, but also only marry according to the religious rites of our institution (it is the institution that is recognised, not us as individuals). What’s bizarre about this is that it is a thin view of the nature of religious belief; and one for which we, the church in the western world, must shoulder the blame.

We’ve got a thinned out vision of religious life; we ourselves operate as though there’s the sacred space of church on a Sunday; as though church’s are an embassy of heaven, and the secular space of the rest of the world; as though our sacred lives are caught up in religious pomp and ceremony, but our secular lives, our public lives, are not remarkably different from those around us; as though faith is a private (sub-)intellectual conviction that we shouldn’t bother anybody with, while our public lives are lived according to the shared values of reason and the pursuit of common ground. We’ve denied and played down the difference between Christian living and the lives of our neighbours, and now when we want to maintain some sort of distinction we’re creating the impression that this — same sex marriage — is the only point at which it matters for us to be different; as though this is where our nation is departing from God’s design.

This is our fault.

Our political lobbyists have talked up a Christian constituency for years based on census data, all the while knowing that active engagement in church life — a faith with flesh and bones — makes Christianity a significant minority in our country (with disproportionate influence in our civic institutions — like our politicians still praying the Lord’s Prayer). We’ve done this while talking down anything that looks like religious reasoning for our positions; preferring to make arguments from ‘nature’ or ‘logic’ as opposed to saying “we believe God says X, and that belief shapes our community”… we’ve overreached as a result, denying that other religious communities (or non religious communities) do not share our convictions about nature, or the character of God. At a conference I went to a couple of years ago an Aussie law professor, Joel Harrison, made the point that our judicial system cannot and does not accept religious arguments as legitimate motivation for behaviour because of the way our legal system operates and understands behaviours and motivations for behaviours; the spiritual is closed out, so it doesn’t get a look in.

Our (evangelical) churches have settled for a ‘faith alone’ approach to Christianity that emphasises a personal rational assent to particular truths about God and the Gospel as what ‘counts’ for Christians; a ‘tick a box’ Christianity (that matches our census approach) so that making disciples has largely been about winning arguments, not so much about forming people who imitate Jesus in rich communities that live lives of thick difference from the community around us; not just when it comes to sexual ethics. We see conversion as being pretty much exclusively about the head, which when our culture sees religion as, in the words of Manning Clark, ‘a shy hope in the heart’ — a private thing that doesn’t really motivate how we live outside our homes — means we avoid anything particularly radical.

The connection between what we believe and talk about on Sundays and how we live apart from Sundays such that religious freedom is about anything other than Sundays is not obvious to most Christians, let alone our secular politicians.

And our culture perpetuates this myth every time political correctness kicks in such that the behaviour of religious radicals is explained away as simply political; because we’ve decided the sacred is only what happens in the institutional practice and teaching of religious belief; not in the lives of believers as motivated by belief.

This is our fault… and the way to change it is to totally reverse our strategy.

To pursue thick community that is different to the world around us in that it reclaims every inch of life for a believer as sacred; such that it is unimaginable for us to participate in the public or political life of our country without doing so as people who first bend the knee and submit our lives (in every sphere, for example economically not just sexually) to Jesus.

We need to have an approach to education and formation that isn’t just about the head and what is taught, but about allegiance and practices (who we serve and what we do). We need to recapture a grand organising narrative for our lives so that our ethics are connected to something we can easily communicate and explain to people who don’t share it; rather than seeing faith as being a private, disconnected, part of who we are. We have to be able to understand our own behaviour, and account for it, in a way that is connected to this story and such that our behaviour is different to the behaviour of others — and we need to be prepared to simultaneously cop the sort of opposition that difference brings, and give the sort of generous space to others that we want to be afforded ourselves. So, for example, give away our wedding cakes and flowers to gay couples (especially if we suspect a court case is part of the intent) if we don’t want to profit from things we disagree with, as a sign of rich disagreement and love… and hire non-Christian janitors, and (continue to) accept non-Christian kids for our Christian schools as an act of inclusion — but make it clear why we are only hiring Christian teachers and how our approach to education is connected to our understanding of the good life — the Gospel — not just to getting a good education for our kids so they might prosper (the false Gospel). As an aside, every person on staff at a Christian or church run school should have to read Augustine’s On Christian Teaching.

We also need to be prepared to practice a particular sort of faithful presence in our community to model difference that isn’t disinterested or withdrawing difference; not withdraw our kids from classes that teach people stuff we disagree with (especially if we ever tell our kids to invite their friends along to hear about Jesus).

The sky isn’t falling in; it’s the same is it was yesterday. It’s the ‘sky’ Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age. He even describes the path to getting there; and as you skim this, just imagine how our Christian political strategy (think about the no campaign for an example) reinforces this way of seeing the world.

He starts by talking about our current political reality.

“The political organisation of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. Churches are now separate from political structures. Put in another way, in our “secular” societies, you can engage fully in politics without ever encountering God.”

Just imagine if we, churches, adopted a strategy that reinforced this status quo. Oh wait. We have.

But what this means, this shift, is that people in our world don’t have a real understanding of anything sacred, just this secular vision of reality where God has no place. Taylor calls this the ‘immanent frame’. Here’s the progression from the pre-modern to the modern western view.

At first, the social order is seen as offering us a blueprint for how things, in the human realm, can hang together to our mutual benefit, and this is identified with the plan of Providence, what God asks us to realize. But it is in the nature of a self-sufficient immanent order that it can be envisaged without reference to God; and very soon the proper blueprint is attributed to Nature. This change can, of course, involve nothing of importance, if we go on seeing God as the Author of Nature, just a notational variant on the first view. But following a path opened by Spinoza, we can also see Nature as identical with God, and then as independent from God. The Plan is without a planner. A further step can then be taken, where we see the Plan as what we come to share and adhere to in the process of civilization and Enlightenment; either because we are capable of rising to a universal view, to the outlook, for instance, of the “impartial spectator”; or because our innate sympathy extends to all human beings; or because our attachment to rational freedom in the end shows us how we ought to behave.”

Our modern world operates as though God is not in the picture; and if Christians are right that’s a terrible and deadly mistake. The problem is that we’ve helped. We Christians have adopted a strategy of political engagement that is formed in this secular millieu, by its assumptions about politics… the idea that lawmakers don’t need to understand religious belief to make laws, just ‘nature’… and then when we lose the ‘nature’ argument we’ve mounted we want to turn around and ask for religious exemptions?

Seriously.

This also means that our modern world is ill-equipped to understand why a symbolic cake matters to a baker, or why exemptions for clergy don’t really cut it.

We also have a politics to fix this.

We have our own political game that makes sure we see the secular consumed by the sacred when we bend our knee to King Jesus. Church isn’t an embassy; we don’t stand on sacred ground on Sundays. We are ambassadors. We are sacredpriestly, people wherever we go. This was part of the heart of the revolution of the Reformation; the same movement that brought us faith alone (and probably democracy) brought us the priesthood of all believers; the idea that everything we do in this world is a sacred act of priestly service to God. Luther wrote a letter to the Christian nobility — a political letter, to politicians — his purpose was to take the power to decide what was sacred and profane away from the corrupt institutional (and political) church, and put it in the hands of everybody (including the politicians of his day). The church was claiming that it had power over the state because the church was ‘sacred’ or spiritual while the state was ‘secular’ or temporal… Luther said:

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.”

Farmers and people who make stuff… politicians… teachers… butchers, bakers, florists… if you’re a Christian you belong to the ‘spiritual estate’, your work is sacred. Our government doesn’t understand that, because for the most part, neither do we. Protections for clergy aren’t enough; especially not for protestant Christians who agree with Luther. Luther also said:

“There is really no difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, “spirituals” and “temporals,” as they call them, except that of office and work… just as Those who are now called “spiritual” — priests, bishops or popes — are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the Word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities, — they bear sword and rod with which to punish the evil and to protect die good. A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”

Every occupation held by a Christian is sacred so long as their work is for the bodily and spiritual (you can’t disconnect those in his though) welfare of the community. That the government doesn’t understand that we think this is our fault, because where else do they gain an understanding about the lives and beliefs of Christians apart from how we live, and what we say to our politicians? Or, what we allow to be said on our behalf by our lobby groups?

We have a very clear political mandate, especially in a world that lives life without God and believes that to be ‘good’… We have a mission to follow the one who broke through the ‘brass dome’ of the natural world as a super-natural emissary from the God of heaven; though he wasn’t just the ambassador; he was the visiting king of what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Our secular politics has been the result of allowing the church to box this king into a corner; a corner where he has almost no apparent relevance to the day to day life of Aussie believers so far as those looking on can tell (except when it comes to how we think about sex).

The Gospel is, itself, political. It is the proclamation that Jesus is king; that God is the creator and through Jesus claims every inch of our lives and of the world; that he died, was raised, rules, and will return to renew the world for his resurrected people living as his kingdom. This proclamation has profound implications for how people who believe it live now; in other kingdoms, and how we live with one another as this kingdom.

Church properties aren’t sacred embassies, or sanctuaries (though they’ve been recognised that way in the past), clergy aren’t particularly extra-specially sacred or priestly… church communities are sacred ambassadors for this king.

This is our politics. And we’ve forgotten it. We’ve played the ‘secular game’ for too long… and it has come at a cost.

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:11-20

We are sacred new creations. Sacred ambassadors. Serving a king crucified by the government he came to visit. Let’s start acting like it. Dying for it. Compelled by the love of Jesus, not by protecting our privilege (and even if that isn’t our motivation, the appearance that we’re doing that must push us to behave differently). Giving up commending ourselves in order to commend Jesus, and as Paul put it a chapter earlier ‘carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies so that the life of Jesus might be made known’… whether we’re clergy or bakers, or candlestick makers.

The superhero pastor

I don’t often write about the day to day business of pastoring a church; I always feel like pastors writing about being pastors is a bit self-indulgent and often it boils down to a sort of ‘woe is me, my job is harder than you could imagine… if only you would do more, good Christian, you would keep me from burnout’… or my personal least-favourite, tips for how to ‘appreciate your pastor in pastor appreciation month’… blurgh…

I love my job and think it’s a privilege to be paid to tell people about Jesus and think about how our church should best shape itself in order to reach our friends, family, and neighbours. I do feel appreciated by lots of people. I’m thankful for my church family. And the answer for how to appreciate your pastor and make them feel better is probably just to turn up to church and love the people who are part of your church family with every bit of who you are — mess included…

But indulge me. Just this once (well. I can’t guarantee it’ll only be once).

Pastoring a church is actually a super hard job. One I’ve only been doing for a few years. I’m a total rookie, and most of the time I feel like I’m in over my head and that I’m making things up as I go, hoping not to hurt too many people… and unlike most rookies, I have an incredible team of people supporting me; a dad whose footsteps I’m following in, a boss who coaches and supports me, a mentor who mentors me, a team of fellow staff who shoulder all sorts of responsibilities, and a pretty great church community… even with the best human support structures in the world this job is hard, and it throws up curveball after curveball.

I’m in a little season of feeling sorry for myself and counting the cost of some of my mistakes; of decisions made, or not made, of structures adopted, but mostly just of spinning plates that have fallen from different sticks while my attention was on the balls I was juggling at the same time. Mostly it’s a season of counting the cost of simply being normal-human rather than super-human. Sometimes I wish I was a super-hero, or super-pastor. Like the ones you see on the Internet (or on TV if you watch that rubbish).

It’s easy to think that a church succeeds or fails on the shoulders of the pastor — that’s what we’re often told; it’s there in the literature in the Christian bookshops, and on Christian websites… pastors grow and shrink churches…  and I suspect that for many people it’s easy to believe your own faith lives or dies on the shoulders of your pastor, because heaven forbid you need to take responsibility for your own growth, or changing how you live to be more like Jesus without someone telling you. Let me stress this is not all people.

I’m almost four years in and I’m reasonably sure my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing this load; the responsibility of growing (or shrinking) a church, or the responsibility of ‘growing’ a Christian using my own power. I’m also six years into parenting, and have three kids, and feel overwhelmed by that load… four years into dog ownership and feel like my shoulders aren’t capable of bearing that load… and just over ten years into marriage. There are a lot of loads for my shoulders to bear should I see my task in these terms. In a lifetime of being around church ministry stuff, I’ve also watched the load of pastoring metaphorically (though perhaps literally on a spiritual level, and a family level) tearing people apart, and I’m pretty determined for that not to be me, or my family.

A huge part of the battle not to be torn apart is the battle not to buy into the myth of the super-pastor.

You know the one, you probably see it on social media if you follow pastors whose official fan pages post clips of their most impassioned preaching (in their lycra-like tight preaching costume, with their slicked-back hair, telling stories about their kids)… it’s the story that the pastor has his stuff together as a family man and only ever loses it as his kids in order to have just the right story for his sermon.

It’s the story of the pastor who has been through the hero’s journey — who set out on an adventure, was broken, but has now returned, like Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to lead the solution to the church’s problems.

The myth of the super-pastor is not just the myth that the pastor’s own congregation needs the salvation that only this pastor can bring, but that the whole church needs this super-pastor. So the platform has to grow; the books have to be published, and screens have to be rolled out across the land. We’ve seen it all before. We’ll see it again. And as a pastor it’s tempting to believe it when things are going well — and to be crushed by it when they aren’t.

It certainly feels like the church needs a super-hero; not just our church (which has its own problems and is enough to leave me feeling inadequate and out of my depth). I sat at our local Westfield this afternoon with one of the guys from church, overwhelmed again by just how many people there are in our city and how many of them don’t know Jesus. People walking by our table living in their own little stories, pursuing their own goals, and identity, and ultimately worshipping something other than Jesus. I was struck, again, by our city’s need for a saviour. I was struck by just how poorly our churches are doing at reaching people.

I went to the Ashes test and the Rugby League World Cup semi-final here in Brisbane on Friday and was, cumulatively, surrounded by almost 60,000 people. The Presbyterian Church of Queensland, across the board, in Queensland, claims weekly attendance of around 7,600 people.

We’re not, by any stretch, the only show in town when it comes to preaching the Gospel in Queensland; but last year we buried more people than we baptised (175 to 152)… and our attendance grew by 289, but more than half of that growth was in a Korean Presbyterian church that ministers almost exclusively to Korean migrants, with minimal input from the denomination… apart from this (and without downplaying it) we grew by 1.7%, which is just a nudge above the rate of population growth in Queensland, which is significant because if our growth rate is smaller than the population growth rate we’re actually shrinking in real terms… and these attendance figures also double count people who attend two services on the one Sunday. We’re not talking about revival. We’re not making a ripple in the pond that is Westfield Garden City on a Sunday, or the crowd at the footy… we’re surrounded by people who need rescuing… even if they don’t know it.

It’s tempting to think we need super-pastors to do this work. People who’ll heroically overturn the status quo (that’s what heroes do), and lead a new revival (that’s what super-pastors do)… part of this temptation comes because it does seem that both these things would be great… I’m all for both of them… just not for the weight of both, or either, of them being put on the shoulders of pastors, rather than the church, or more importantly, its actual hero.

I’m not a super-pastor. But if I was… I’d be Spider-Man.

I’m a sucker for Spider-Man. I love his aesthetic; I love the puns; I love the super-hero mythos generally; and I love that at his best he limits himself to his neighbourhood. I love that he’s young, sometimes cocky, but that he finds redemption, often, in realising that he needs the help of others. The best bits of Spider-Man were captured in his recent introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In Homecoming, Marvel explored Spider-Man’s limits — especially through deliberate comparisons to Iron Man; a real super hero. It explored his desire to really count; to be someone significant, who saw his local patch as a stepping stone to the global stage, and local crime as small stuff compared to the world of the Avengers. Ultimately his Homecoming journey left him happy enough being your trademarked ‘friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’; but not without him needing to prove himself, to prove that his shoulders could bear the weight his powers placed upon them (though ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ was implied in this expedition, not explicit). Homecoming was the story of Spider-Man truly learning his place.

There was one particular scene I loved. A vivid metaphor of the temptation to be a ‘super-pastor’… Spider-Man is on the Staten Island Ferry. He has a confrontation with the bad guy who is wielding alien weapons; and as Spider-Man seems to get the upper hand, his enemy, the Vulture, says something along the lines of ‘you have no idea what you’re playing at’, and the weapon Spider-Man has wrested from his hands goes out of control; splitting the ferry in two.

Now. For the purposes of this metaphor; imagine that the ferry is the church. A bunch of people who have been rescued from the water beneath by the boat, but then because of the rookie errors of their pastor, the church is rent in two. It starts to take on water. The people who thought they were safe, and that the pastor was looking after their journey, now face death by drowning. They’re probably worse off than they were before the pastor did anything to get them on board…

Spider-Man recognises that the church is falling apart, and because he is a super-hero, he believes it is his responsibility to save it. He, after all, has the power.

In the movie version, Spider-Man’s technologically-augmented suit calculates the path he needs to traverse through the rapidly falling apart ship, he flings himself, pirouetting like only Spidey can, between fixed points on the boat… and we get this iconic image of Spider-Man, the hero, saving the day. Holding the lives of the passengers in his hands… bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. The sort of image a super-pastor might post of themselves on social media… probably while preaching… probably in the same cruciform pose (for the record, I hate photos of pastors preaching, but every time a photo is posted of me it looks like I’m preparing for take off).

This is the iconic image of the movie Homecoming. Spider-Man. Arms outstretched. Saving the world… or the ferry in the sort of cruciform pose you might expect from Australia’s St Andrews Cross Spider. Just for a moment it looks like Spider-Man manages to pull it all together.

It looks like Spider-Man has saved the day… and sometimes super-hero pastors can feel like this. Job done. Crisis averted. Lives saved… all on your shoulders…

There’s going to be a slight spoiler after this picture.

 

This looks like an iconic image; a picture of heroism, but it’s actually a picture of Spider-Man’s failure. 

Just when it looks like Super-Pastor… I mean Spider-Man has pulled everything together the voice in his suit congratulates him on a great job… he’s been, it says, “98% successful”… it dawns on him that 98% is not successful enough just as the whole thing falls apart.

He has failed.

His shoulders were not broad enough; he was all responsibility not enough power, and now everything comes crashing down. And in the real life version of this, this is where the pastor has an identity crisis and either starts blaming people for getting in the way, or shouldering too much of the blame for failing… and both are deadly.

This, at least, was how I felt when watching this scene, and its resolution. I’ve been feeling like church is a ship that if not torn apart by alien lasers, at least has a lot of holes that always need to be plugged. It’s always taking on water. People are always at risk of drowning… and too often I, and they, expect Super-Pastor to save them. The thing is… if this ship went down I’m not sure that Spider-Man actually survives anyway; his fate is tied to the fate of the passengers.

So often in the last few years I’ve bought into one of two ‘super-pastor’ narratives, both when things are going well (and it’s easy to believe the hype), and when things are hard: one, that I’m the saviour our church needs; that my shoulders will hold our church together, carry it, plug the holes, and bind up the broken… most often, but not always, this one comes from a sort of internal monologue, but it’s even more unhelpful when it comes from other people.

The second narrative is that the boat falling apart is my fault; if only I’d preached richer, deeper, clearer, funnier sermons, or if only I’d made better decisions, if only I’d been less stressed out because of parenting toddlers, or less distracted by the countless other things that land on my lap, or that I give attention to… if only I’d been better at my job, then people wouldn’t feel like they’re drowning, wouldn’t be falling overboard, or would be growing in the sort of maturity that’d have them strapping on an Avengers uniform and running into the fray as super-heroes too. This one also comes from a certain internal monologue, but is also, I suspect, part of the subtext of many decisions (not all) to jump ship. We’re so geared, in our consumer culture where the cult of personality rules, to pick a church based on the pastor, or ‘the preaching’; and to build our assessment of whether a church is sinking or swimming based on how well the super-hero is delivering… or perhaps I’m so geared, as a pastor, to think in those terms… that any time it feels like something is falling apart it’s because I’ve only been 98% successful, or worse. Then we’re geared to think that it’s our job to be the hero, if not the pastor’s job, that somehow we need to make up what is lacking in ourselves, or tackle the vastness of the mission, by shouldering more of the world’s problems.

But I am not Spider-Man. I’m not a super-pastor. I have no desire to build a platform, or to carry the weight of the world (or just my church) on my shoulders. I’m also not a super-parent or super-husband; but part of what I’m learning good parenting looks like is letting my kids take responsibility for the things they can take responsibility for, but also letting them let go of what they aren’t (which is most things).

Because while I’m not the saviour (and am a naughty boy); there is another whose shoulders are big enough; one whose outstretched arms were not only 98% successful (and had they been, it would’ve doomed us all). And it’s not Iron Man… but the real cruciform saviour. He’s the one holding our church together; he’s the one I need to look at when I’m tempted to believe any super-pastor ideas (that I am one, or am failing to be one), whether from others or myself… and he’s the one I’m to point to. I love the way Hebrews talks about this both in the first chapter, and in chapter 10, in these words, first talking about ‘heroes’ — priests — those who stand between us and God — who aren’t even 98% successful… and then Jesus, the true super-pastor. The one who stood, but then sat down, enemies destroyed. Mission accomplished. Church building.

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. — Hebrews 10:11-14

This doesn’t mean we don’t do anything; but it does free us to swing boldly. I don’t need to save any church, or any city. It is Jesus who saves; and that he chooses to use rookie preachers like me, and bumbling communities like ours is a miracle. And a good one. He does choose that which means we should act, freely, and heroically, just without the pressure or responsibility of real power.

My son Xavi loves Spider-Man. He dresses like him, pretends to be him, and has learned some lessons about how to use his muscles from Spider-Man’s example. It’s great when he imitates Spider-Man, but delusional when he starts to think that he is Spider-Man. And it’s like that with us…

Or as Captain Hebrews puts it, our hero secures us the ability to be free and confident, and part of this is knowing that we don’t have to save ourselves, or others, we’re just free to be fans who point people to the real deal through our love and good deeds, as we meet together to encourage each other to cling and imitate while we wait, not as heroes but as those who wait for our hero to return, knowing that he rules, and that he builds his church and draws people near.

Inasmuch as there is responsibility in churches for this encouragement, it’s a thing we own together, a load we share, but a load lightened by Jesus. There is no super-pastor in this picture of life together; there are people coming together to cling to the real hero… together… church is a ‘one another’ not a ‘one other’ deal (unless that one other is Jesus).

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. — Hebrews 10:19-25

I’m not Spider-Man. I’m not Super-Pastor. I don’t need to be. I’m just me. And that’s enough. Anything more than that — whether my expectations or yours — would tear me apart.

 

How The Punisher is a picture of justice without God

Mild, very mild, spoilers. 

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m a sucker for the Netflix section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); the gritty ‘street level hero’ excites me more than the fly-in-fly-out Avengers, and the even more infinitely removed Guardians of the Galaxy (though I do enjoy those). The big guys in the MCU are set to fight the ‘infinity wars’, and they’ve left a power vacuum in street level New York. The city is reeling and trying to figure out what these big heroes mean for the pursuit of justice, and even what heroism means; while the physical fallout from the Avengers explosive battle with the ‘chitauri’ (Avengers 1) — dubbed ‘the incident’ — has created opportunities for exploitative and opportunistic criminals to step in (which is pretty much the story of Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Netflix’s Daredevil).

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

I’m also a sucker for The Punisher. Frank Castle. He’s perhaps my favourite Marvel antihero. I grew up reading Phantom comics, so his ‘death’s head’ symbol and willingness to kill criminals in pursuit of justice not just mark them with a skull from a fancy ring (ala the Phantom) makes him feel like a grown up superhero. His story — where he is pursuing justice, or seeking vengeance, after his wife and kids were slaughtered is, perhaps, more poignant now I have a wife and kids. Plus I enjoy his aesthetic generally, and the Marvel take on it specifically (though this series is gritty and violent, and there were scenes where I had to look away or cover the screen of my laptop with my hands (I couldn’t watch this series with Robyn)).

 

Marvel introduced us to this version of The Punisher in Daredevil season 2; which was framed as a battle between darkness and light — between the conflicted (though blind so permanently in darkness), thoroughly Catholic, ‘Devil of Hell’s Kitchen’ who refuses to take life, and The Punisher’s dark pursuit of the violent end of his enemies. There’s a scene in this latest series where the TV news reports Castle has killed 37 people, his new ally Micro (a hacker with his own score to settle), turns to him incredulous. 37? Castle replies that this is just the number they know about. He is judge, jury, and executioner just without Judge Dredd’s state sanction.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

This season is a battle for Castle’s soul — or his own battle to keep his soul in the face of his personal devastation.

And I can sympathise with him. If this life is all there is, and it seems to be in the story, the Punisher offers some hope for justice in the face of the state’s failings. Unlike Daredevil, whose religious faith is overt and shapes everything, The Punisher seems to operate in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’, he’s not haunted by questions of whether his victims are ‘made in the image of God’ and so capable of good, he’s not fascinated by an afterlife, such that his ethics are driven by his sense of where he’s going… he just wants to cause pain, as proximately as possible to the pain caused to him and his family, to those who perpetrated evil against him. He is the grim reaper. The personification of death. The knock at the door for these criminals who are part of a complex system of evil — and for those who happen to incidentally cross his path during this crusade.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

There are moments where Frank has to decide whether to live or die, and a vision of his deceased wife beckoning at him from the other side of death suggests there is something more; but that he refuses to take that step in order to pursue his vengeance suggests he doesn’t have any certainty that these visions are anything other than a delusion.

So if this life is all there is; if there is no hope for justice beyond the grave; then what does justice actually look like in the face of awful systemic crime, that exploits and that treats human life as cannon fodder? That’s the question the Punisher forces us to ask as viewers. In all its grit, blood, mess, and violence. If this flesh and blood existence is all there is, then how do you extract the price required to restore balance — how does the classic view of ‘justice’ (the blind lady with the scales) operate in response to deadly evil?

How does a human participate in the bringing of justice in response to evil without taking on some of that evil? Or admitting that it actually lies there in every human heart? Whose hands are clean enough to exact vengeance without crossing a line into something impure? Or how does one get dirty hands, in the grit, blood, mess, and violence of this world without continuing the vicious cycle?

If this world is all there is, if the dead are not raised, if there is no God who judges, then I want The Punisher in this world, but I don’t want to be the Punisher, and I think it’s reasonably clear (and this is something that both the Marvel and DC cinematic franchises are grappling with) that violence begets violence. In the DC world there’s the perennial suggestion that Batman being the personification of fear, armed with fancy gadgets, has forced Gotham’s criminal underworld to evolve (and so compete) and so you get the cartoonish roll of villains from The Joker to Catwoman (and everyone in between)… what sort of New York exists five years from The Punisher season 1?

What is justice? Where is it found? Castle’s hacker sidekick has this dialogue with the purer face of justice, Agent Dinah Midani, about why he’s thrown in his lot with The Punisher not with the system.

Micro: You want justice. Because you haven’t figured out that there is no such thing yet… 

Agent Madani: You don’t believe in justice?

Micro: No I did. I did. You were it. You and the system. I’ve learned different. 

Agent Madani: Good men have died trying to expose this thing. They believed. 

Micro: Well. I believe the only way to get these assholes is to become like them. 

Agent Madani: No. I don’t believe that. 

Micro: You will. In the end.

The only way to get these assholes is to become like them.

There’s a cost.

To fight evil and pursue justice, in the world of The Punisher, you have to become evil. In a world where death is all there is, you respond to those who bring death on other people by bringing death. Only. If there’s no system… if it’s just vigilante stuff… who decides who is worthy of death? The market? Ability? Castle goes head to head with an old army buddy who is his equal in everything; while being willing to cross more lines.

The Punisher embraces this; the black, the skull logo, the warpaint, this is his embodiment of his cause — death. Justice in a world where nothing resides beyond that door. Painful death (seriously… it’s painful to watch). He’s driven by knowing that death is all there is… that’s his thing.

Micro: You’d rather be dead than feeling? Frank Castle. The Punisher. On a suicide mission, because what, he doesn’t like it when, uh, his feelings get hurt?

That skull. That’s a memento mori. It’s Latin for ‘remember, you will die.’ In Rome, victorious generals would return from war and so they didn’t get blinded by glory, they’d have a slave who would just say “Remember, you’re only human, you’re going to die.”

Frank: Well. That sounds good to me. 

Micro: Well, it’s meant as an admonition to value your life, to live it well. 

Later, when Madani challenges Micro’s faith in Castle because Castle was complicit in the system he’s seeking to overthrow before he realised and started his crusade, Micro says “Frank is resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live. That’s a shame.” This is Frank becoming that which he seeks to overthrow; what’s good for his victims is good for him.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

But what if this isn’t it. What if Daredevil is right, and The Punisher is wrong? What if not only are people, made in God’s image, are in some way capable of redemption (though because I’m not Catholic I think this redemption comes supernaturally from God, it’s not something we can work towards, or that we’re even capable of)? What if there is something beyond death that should shape how we live? What if there’s a judge who judges not just us, but our enemies. Who promises real justice — only, justice that includes justice for the evil in our hearts too?

And what if that judge had a different game plan to handle the same insights The Punisher raises — the idea that to deal with the problem — to ‘deal with these assholes’ — you have to become one of them?

What if you do have to step inside the vicious cycle; but somehow; somehow; you have to break it?

And break it in a way that convicts the offender (while offering redemption), but also comforts the afflicted with justice and hope. If you want mercy and hope in the mix you’d have to break it in a way that reaches beyond the grave to bring both justice and life… because if this life is all there is, how could the death of some ‘innocents’ like Castle’s family ever be paid for by the death of the guilty, especially if they then experience mercy (or if there’s the small mercy of the death of the body being all there is)?

Frank Castle is a man seeking atonement. But he seeks atonement in a purely immanent frame; there’s no horizon beyond the endorsement of the system he rejects that will vindicate him. And one day, when he fails, he’ll die (he certainly cops enough bumps, stab wounds, and bruises to have you questioning his mortality).

Jesus is a man who brought atonement. A man who did enter the vicious cycle of this world in order to break it; one who ‘became sin, who knew no sin, so we might become his righteousness’. A man who on the cross, in an act of substitution, became all the assholes he saved; and experienced justice for them; for us; on our behalf (as an interesting aside, Marvel’s Netflix partnership has so far presented Daredevil as the good samaritan (and New York as the victim), and as the suffering servant, and Luke Cage as a ‘liberation’ style messiah figure, some substitutionary atonement would be great (though the end of the Defenders leaves that possibility open).

Jesus is a man who stepped into the blood, grit, and violence of this world but did not take up his sword to seek vengeance, but a cross to bring both justice and mercy. A man who wasn’t a vigilante, but who was failed by a corrupt, deadly, self-interested state — the Roman empire — whose followers eventually overthrew that system simply by refusing to take part in that particular vicious cycle (at least at first, Christians would later go on their own crusades).

Frank Castle was a man ‘resigned to die because he’s not sure he deserves to live,’ Jesus was a man who was resigned to die though he deserved to live… A true innocent. Blameless.

But a willing victim of injustice; and the grand threat embodied in that Roman memento mori: Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Jesus did this — faced death — bloody, gritty, violent, death — because he didn’t operate in Castle’s immanent frame. He did this because he believed death is not all there is. His approach to life, and justice, and his hope, is meant to shape those who live in the world following him. The writer to the Hebrews says:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” — Hebrews 12:1-3

There’s some interesting stuff in the following versions about how we might discipline or punish ourselves when we take sin seriously, not because we have to pay its price, but because Jesus has. Our sense of how to live in this world comes from what we believe about the judge; the ‘punisher’, and what we believe about our future. Hebrews suggests the short term pain is a result of the discipline of a father who loves us — a father who has lost his son to violent — but that we can believe this pain is good because “it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” — its end point is quite different to those being trained by the vicious cycle of vengeance, violence, and blood.

Remember you are only human. You’re going to die.

Is it possible these words aren’t just a reminder to live good lives rather than a fatalistic death sentence that leaves us throwing our lives away trying to pursue revenge for wrongs we’ve experienced? Is there more to life, more to justice, than the latin maxim? Is there more to reality than death? Is there a life-giver (God), not just a life-taker (death)?

Ultimately those are going to be the question that shapes our approach to justice in this world; whether we’re on Team Punisher or Team Jesus. Is there more to life than death? Is justice something we’ve got to extract in pounds and pounds of flesh now, or can we trust that God has to exact justice not just for crimes committed against us, but for humanity’s execution and rejection of Jesus — whose blood debt we all owe as participants in a corrupt system. If we believe God will be judge, jury, and executioner it means we don’t need to pull the trigger. It means we don’t need to get our hands dirty, because he did. It means we have hope that death has been defeated, that it has lost its sting, but also that there is a just judge who will give us the justice we crave, and mercy we require, and this means we can live different lives to the cycle we see play out so gruesomely in The Punisher.

So Paul can say, in Romans, in a ‘cycle-breaker’…

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12:17-21

Don’t become like them.

Don’t be an asshole who just begets the vicious cycle of a broken system. Join a new one. See the world differently. Death differently.

This makes for a truly beautiful and compelling way of life; I’m just not sure this makes for great (though ugly and confronting) television.

10 things to consider in your response to the postal survey result

You might remember my brother-in-law Mitch from such posts as 10 Reasons Born This Way is not the book the Church needs on homosexuality and 10 Reasons The Plausibility Problem is the book the church needs on homosexuality, well, here we are with another list of ten things.

Mitch is same sex attracted, and married to my sister, so is a living testimony to the reality that gay people have always been able to marry under Australian law (I -Mitch- am not sure if that’s funny or grossly insulting to gay people who actually want to marry their own gender…). He also ministers to same sex attracted Christians in churches around the country — not suggesting they marry, but helping us all think about what it means to be a church that makes a life putting Jesus before our own sexual desires plausible.

Nathan lost all credibility in commenting on the plebiscite by not voting. Mitch thinks Nathan was silly to do this. I (Mitch) am really glad I could say that publicly.

Both of us are pastors in churches (Presbyterian ones), and both of us are passionate about the church helping all Aussies hear the life-giving and beautiful story of Jesus, and coming to put their trust in him. We’re worried that how the Aussie church typically talks about sex and sexuality gets in the way of this.

If video is your thing you can watch us both on a panel from a thing a few months ago about being the church in the ‘sexular age’ — skip about 30 minutes if you don’t want to watch Nathan speaking by himself.

Introductions over. Credibility established. Here’s our list.

1. Christians in Australia might get a hard time occasionally, but we aren’t persecuted… Not like the LGBTIQA community is, and has been, historically, in Australia. Many Christians will feel sad about the result, and hurt by bits of the campaign, but please don’t adopt a persecution complex.

At the footy this year one of us heard someone bellow out ‘Get him he’s gay’ to much laughter from the crowd. We’ve never heard anyone yell ‘get him he’s Christian.’

Until recently there were laws in Australia where ‘gay panic’ (the fear someone of your gender was hitting on you) was a legitimate defense against murder. That’s one example of many where the laws of our nation actually persecuted the LGBTIQA communities; and that says nothing of the culture. It’s not just Christians who persecute members of these communities — this isn’t a point to apportion ‘blame’, just to remind Christians how important it is not to play the victim in a way that perpetuates the real victimhood of others. The postal survey result is not persecution; at worst it’s the loss of a privileged position we’ve enjoyed with regards to our nation’s laws.

It’s legitimate to feel misunderstood in the plebiscite — some Christian objections to a change in the definition of marriage — especially a positive vision of the Biblical definition — got lost in the no campaign’s advertising. And some mean things were directed at Christians, and no campaigners, but the answer to the nasty direction the conversation sometimes took is not nastiness, or victimhood, it is love; especially love that trusts that God is the just judge (Romans 13).

2. This ‘fight’ is over — don’t keep revisiting it or start campaigning now to repeal this decision.

This postal survey has been deeply polarising and has revealed deep fracture lines in our secular, pluralistic, society. It has been an exercise in figuring out how to live together across deep difference. And we’ve failed. All of us. From the people we elected to lead down.

What if we didn’t fight against a collective of communities who already (rightly, historically) feel like the world is out to get them, and started listening to them. What if we discovered that the hopes and desires of our same sex attracted neighbours are almost identical to the desires of our opposite sex attracted neighbours, and that we Christians seem to ask more of the same sex attracted ones than we do of opposite sex attracted ones? What if this difference extends to how we speak of sexuality for people in the church too?

It will do immense damage if we do not respect the expressed will of the Australian people in a democracy, but continue this damaging fight beyond this campaign. Some people are already committing to fight for the repeal of laws that haven’t been drafted yet.

3. The official, secular, ‘no campaign’ harmed the witness of the church by turning Christians into political operatives with a politics other than the Gospel. The church has an opportunity to get back on message and on mission — remembering the ultimate positive thing we have to offer our neighbours, LGBTIQA or straight.

We’ve not been massive fans of doorknocking as a methodology for spreading news about much at all in Australia; but missionary organisations and denominations (which should be missionary organisations) were trying to get supporters out doorknocking on this issue. Why not all the other worthy political issues (Manus Island)? But more importantly, why not the Gospel?

 

Why did churches and denominations jump into bed with a secular campaign for marriage rather than mounting arguments from our actual religious convictions about marriage? Ice cream companies didn’t tip money into the yes campaign, they ran their own ice cream advertisements in support of the campaign. Our message (the Gospel) has been confused with a worldly political message.

Now is a chance for us to consider what we, the church, need to say and do to get back to our core political message — that Jesus is king. We need to ask how we might love our neighbours — especially our same sex married neighbours — in such a way that they might somehow one day find themselves investigating Jesus. We’ve also got to consider that the answer for these couples is not a ‘same sex divorce’, but Jesus, and imagine what a future looks like for a same sex parented family that joins a church and trusts Jesus. What sort of community would our churches need to provide to support the revolutionary change the Gospel brings?

4. There are already children in families with same sex parents; most of the arguments against same sex marriage were good arguments for loving and supporting these parents as they raise these children.

Perhaps, before we think about those families ever wanting to join a church, we might consider what real benefits they might enjoy in their family through experiencing the same security and commitment that yours does (or that you wish yours did). This isn’t really about same sex weddings, though that imagery will be a big deal for the next few months, but about the commitment that comes with marriage. How do we love these families and ‘retrieve’ good for them in this world even if they never come to church?

We’d have been much more credible as Christians when we spoke about our concerns for these kids, in these families, if we were actively trying to support safe, secure, committed family units, built on promises and love, and forgiveness… we could’ve been confident that the goodness of Jesus as the example we hold out when figuring out what those words mean might have drawn our neighbours — these families — to him. Instead we turned them into political footballs. Where is our confidence? Where is our hope? It seems to be more placed in the political process and outcomes secured via legislation than in the politics of ordinary ‘life together’ in community.

5. When the no campaign became a campaign against anti bullying programs in schools — no matter how radical — but we offered no credible replacement, we essentially chose the side of the bully. Not the victim. We have to stop appearing to side with the bully.

We need a better, more positive, more agenda-setting, strategy for engaging with our society as Christians. We have so much to offer the world in terms of human capital, time, resources, and expertise, but we use it to create vacuums by tearing down ideas we disagree with, rather than replacing them with a better alternative.

What if instead of attacking safe schools (a red herring anyway) we’d spent some of that money on building a better alternative; recognising the experience of same sex attracted kids or kids grappling with gender identity issues in our schools, and the way this experience continues into adulthood? Our politics lacked imagination.

6. We can’t talk or speak as though this decision is going to earn our nation some sort of special judgment from God. As though somehow it’s worse than all the other stuff we do…

It would be a mistake to see this as a radical, explosive, unexpected, or significant change, rather than the outcome of many years of a particular way of understanding humanity which eroded another view, and that somehow it is ‘this’ moment that will earn God’s particular judgment.

We’ve already departed from God’s design for rest, work, money, and many other things we Aussies have decided we love more than we love God; all these decisions — whether they’re individual, communal, or systemic, earn God’s judgment. The changes in our culture are actually the gradual continuation of changes in humanity’s self understanding that began with our rejection of God and his design in the beginning, and are accelerated, or vary culture by culture, based on idolatry (what a culture replaces God with), and the impact of the church living faithfully as followers of Jesus, and proclaiming the Gospel and its implications for life in this world (our politics).

7. This campaign was won on the presentation of emotions and experience; we are stuck arguing with people’s heads using only rational evidence. It’s irrational not to listen to other people and dismiss their emotions and experience in the name of ‘rational’ decision making.

There will be massive celebrations in our nation as the result of survey sinks in. These are not mainly celebrations designed to stick it to Christians (although who doesn’t like winning?). For a large number of people it’s a deep joy that says ‘finally they like us.’ If you’ve ever experienced that feeling, keep in mind that’s what many other will have for the first time. If you see someone you know expressing their joy, try asking what the result means for them.

It might also feel to you like a ‘celebration of sin.’ Perhaps in part, but only in the same way as our own celebrations tinged with materialistic greed, family idolatry or the like.

8. We can’t spend all this time talking about how important marriage is, but not spend time investing in marriage. Christian marriages should be part of the witness of the church — married and single — because of how they support people in the church — married and single.

By this we don’t mean make sure you have date night. We mean using your life and household as a witness to the self-sacrificial love shown to us in the gospel… There’s a beautiful picture of this in the Plausibility Problem (review linked above), but another one in this piece by Wesley Hill on how marriage and celibacy go hand in hand. There’s another piece by Hill where he shares this quote with a particular vision for how the church in the United States should respond to same sex marriage being legalised there:

“What the pagans need on this matter [of same-sex marriage] is conversion, not argument; and what the Church ought to do to encourage that is to burnish the practice of marriage by Catholics until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.”

Let’s aim to do that.

9. We can’t talk about some ‘other’ category of sinner in ways that dismiss our own ‘normality’ as sanctified. Often it seems like we think another person’s sin is more grotesque to God than our own.

It’s still true for some that they just don’t really know any gay people, and when they do think about it there’s a feeling of revulsion. A feeling that somehow being gay is really disgusting. Really disgusting, that is, compared to your own life.

That’s mean, arrogant, and a big misunderstanding of our own rejection of god and his view of all our sin.

The truth is our sin is such that it took the death and resurrection of Jesus to start the revolution that overcomes it.

10. When church leaders and Christians are responding to this result — whether in despair, or in celebration, we need to remember those same sex attracted people in our churches who are pursuing faithful celibacy.

We should see that this whole conversation is harder and more damaging for same sex attracted Christians, and how this result might put more pressure on those who are seeking to live faithfully by denying themselves in the area of sex and marriage.

Without fail every week I (Mitch) have conversations with same-sex attracted Christians who are trying to live faithfully to Jesus. It’s incredibly difficult as they sit in churches that celebrate births and marriages they can’t have. This survey result and the changing law will be another thing that makes it seem like leaving the church would allow them to have what others can and what they want.

Now is a time to acknowledge the path just got harder for these men and women. If you know one, ask them how it feels.

When you see the cost off their self-denial think about how the gospel might call you to similar self-denial in areas of your life.

Marking our time, euthanasia, and a eulogy for my gran

This week I inherited a grandfather clock.

I inherited it from my deeply and dearly loved grandmother who died last Friday. It’s now proudly displayed on our lounge room wall, where it marks my own mortality. Every ticking and tocking swing of the pendulum, every cheerful 15 minute chime, marking both the passing of time and the countdown to that day when my body will also draw breath for the last time.

My gran, Cynthia Campbell, was 92; she’d lived a full life which included travelling the world as an adventurous and independent nurse before finding love in perhaps the unlikeliest of places; regional New South Wales with a man, my pa, whose sense of place meant he wanted to put down roots and put them down deep. Pa and Gran, as we called them, had two kids — my dad, and my aunty — and they built a home that served as a base for hospitality but also got as close to self-sufficient as a house in town can get. Their veggie patch was a marvel; pa’s toolshed well stocked; and the house marked by his little innovative ‘fixes’ to little problems that arose through the wear and tear of long life in the one place. All of this marked by the ticking and chiming of this clock.

Inanimate objects don’t really ‘witness’ anything; though we might wish they did, so the clock’s connection to the life of this house is mostly in the imagination. It’s timber has not absorbed the smell of the Anzac biscuits baked fresh for our arrival; the chime does not echo the laughter or words of love spoken around the table or on the telephone that sat next to it; the hands of the clock have not learned to give an embrace that is both warm and safe. But the clock was there for these things and so in some ways it roots me to them; to gran.

One of the nice tactile things about this particular clock (and many like it) is that you have to wind it; its marking of time requires clock work and clockwork. It will run for as long as it is maintained; and were I to stop winding it, one day it too would stop (8 days later, in fact). In this a clock is both like and not like a human body. We cannot perpetually wind our bodies up, nor do we vivify our hands so that we go about our purposes marking time; but there comes a time where the clock stops being wound and we switch off. Gran’s death has been the first real opportunity our kids have had to be confronted with death and mortality; and Soph, 6, when we were talking about how gran died summed it up as ‘her body just switched off’; which it did. At 92, and even with a pacemaker helping her heart keep time, no amount of winding or retuning could keep gran going; and so her breathing, once as regular as a ticking clock, started slowing and becoming irregular. And then it stopped. But while we’re a complex mix of biological cogs and levers, we are not machines. A machine with a careful maintenance schedule and the right parts should be able to run forever; but machines have no soul; no sense of themselves, their purpose, or the lives they touch. Machines do not live and so they cannot die; it’s a curious anthropomorphism that we talk about our machines dying. Machines don’t die; but people do; it’s because our best machines outlive us that we can turn them into family heirlooms and pass them on to new generations. 

It’s interesting to consider the changes wrought on the world and how we see it by the simple clock and its clockwork engineering; the ability to measure time with machine like precision, and our ability to observe an intricately integrated and complex machine and make inferences about the workings of the universe… machines disrupt and change the ecosystems they’re introduced to; but machines do this without intent or a will. I’ve long been fascinated by the Luddite movement; an uprising of humans against sophisticated machines that were taking jobs and changing society. I understand the Luddite impulse but I also wonder about the emotions of the creators of those machines as they saw their handiwork destroyed. Those beautiful machines turned into something ugly and pointless… but I wonder if they were more glad that the Luddites took out their anger on the engines not the engineers… machines don’t take jobs, machinists do. We tend to anthropomorphise machines — to expect them to have human qualities and to talk about them dying, but the flipside is that we increasingly see the cosmos, and people, in machine like terms; with the rise of clockwork we even started to speak of God as the ‘clockmaker’ and to imagine him somewhat distantly winding up the universe and then stepping back to watch time unfold; and this means we talk about death in terms of ‘flicking a switch’ or to see it as a natural end to our life, and the operations or machinations of our body being all there is. We see death as something akin to sand passing through an hour glass, as a natural and normal part of the machine-like universe doing its thing. 

But it isn’t.

We see ourselves as cogs within this machine, or as little machines; operating like clockwork, wound up, and now just waiting for the kinetic energy that is loaded up into our bits and pieces to run out so that we expire.

But we aren’t.

Machines are not people; nor are people machines. If I took a sledgehammer to my beautiful clock and destroyed it the world would lose something beautiful and intricately crafted; how much more has the world lost with the loss of my gran? Or the destruction of every human body, bodies knit together more intricately and beautifully than a clock? Death is the ugly destruction of something much more beautiful than our most beautiful machines. Machines break, people die. 

On the day gran drew breath for the last time, the Victorian government’s lower house passed its euthanasia bill; the word euthanasia is derived from the greek words for good and death, and the pursuit of a ‘good death’ seems noble. And inasmuch as a death can be good, passing away gently in your sleep, with pain managed via the miracles of modern medicine, at 92, and surrounded by family, gran had a good death. A death that made me appreciate what a service palliative care built on the belief that people have a dignity that sets us apart from machinery can be to our world… But as members of my family gathered to say goodbye as we could, and as my folks and aunty were there when gran drew her final breath in as good a death as you might see, I came to realise there is nothing good about death. There gran lay in her room, with this clock on the wall relentlessly beating away like a metronome, while the rhythm of her breathing faltered and the beat of her heart faded away, and there was nothing inherently good about death; which is why we grieve, and this wasn’t simply the mechanical process of a machine being shut down for the last time either. Death stings. We think it’s natural because it happens so much — and will happen to all of us — or is happening to all of us. Death didn’t begin last week for gran, it began 92 years ago with her birth. It’s a lifelong process marked by the passing of time; time which now passes to the rhythmic beating of a second hand on the wall… tick… tock… and if you’re lucky to those cheerful chimes that mark every quarter hour, and peal out some extra notes for each passing hour. If you’re extra lucky you’ll be reminded of your mortality by having to keep winding up that clock every seven days to mark the passing of each week. That’s what clocks, especially grandfather clocks, do; they count down towards our death… and they last beyond it.  

And so I inherit a clock, a clock which hung on the wall still ticking as my gran passed into death, still ticking after her heart stopped, which I can’t help but see as measuring my days. Inheritances are a funny thing, I’ve known my whole life I’d be inheriting ‘the family clock,’ but have not wanted it because to claim it would require the death of the grandparents I loved dearly; first pa, and now gran. A clock that now ticks and tocks, that with careful preservation I too will be able to hand on to another generation of Campbell progeny.

But this clock is not the inheritance I prize most from my gran; the inheritance I most appreciate is one I’ve been enjoying for as long as I remember, it’s more in the realm of the heritage her life (and pa’s) has created for our family, and the things she has been passing on to our family. A heritage of good news about the world and about death. A heritage that has both her son and daughter in vocational church ministry (and a grandson and granddaughter), and that extends beyond her line of her family tree to her siblings, and her nieces and nephews (and their kids).

I love the picture of Timothy in the Bible whose mum and grandma raised him with a heritage so that Paul can say Timothy ‘has known from infancy the Holy Scriptures’ (2 Timothy 3:15), we know it came from his grandma because Paul says earlier: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” (2 Tim 1:5). Despite what the euthanasia advocates desires (with good intent), there is no good death, but there is a good word about death. On Friday we’ll say goodbye to my gran at her funeral, and I’ll be part of giving her eulogy; like ‘euthanasia’ the word eulogy has greek roots — ‘good’ ‘word’ — I have many good words to say about my gran. About her love for us; her generosity; her hospitality; her kind and anxious soul; that she sacrificed much out of love for her family… but I’m most thankful for the good words I inherited from her; good words that give me hope in the face of her death; hope that we are more than machines; hope that means the ticking of the clock which counts down my remaining days on this mortal coil is not just a countdown to me being ‘switched off’ in the best death I can hope for… I’m most thankful that in these good words I discover good words from my creator about my gran, and about death. Because in the ‘good words’ found in those Scriptures; in the good news of Jesus; I see that God is not a watchmaker who sees my gran (or us) as wind up toys that will fall over and be discarded. I see that God is a father who looks at my gran as a beloved daughter. I see that God is not distant — that he didn’t step back after making a ‘machine’ but stepped forward into this world, in the coming of Jesus, to destroy death, that he holds all things together (Colossians 1), gives life and breath and everything to each person (Acts 17), and that he promises to step in again — to return and raise the dead — because death is not some natural thing — an end — where we can find a ‘good’ — death is an enemy to be destroyed.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” — 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

This is a good word that God speaks into and beyond the grave. This, more than anything, is something my gran wanted her kids and grandkids to inherit — a heritage — a legacy — and while her physical possessions have been divided up amongst our family so that we might remember her — this above all was her desire and prayer for her family.

On Friday I’ll speak some ‘good words’ about my gran, last Thursday as I said my goodbyes I said some good words to her. I kissed her on the forehead for the last time and said “thanks for loving us so well; but more than that, thanks for loving Jesus.” I do not know that I could stand the constant beating rhythm; the tick tock; of my new-but-old clock without this hope. Nor could I face the death of my beloved gran. Or death at all.